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Winter Storm Warnings

Winter storms are a frequent occurrence across the Pacific Northwest. Many of these storms bring snow in amounts that cause road closures especially through the mountain passes. Wind, in combination with snow, can cause reduced visibility and deep snow drifts. Along with heavy rains comes the threat of avalanche in areas with steep terrain. In the valleys, temperatures may be near freezing during the day but may plummet after the storm passes causing wet roadways to become ribbons of ice. In some valleys, cool air trapped near the surface will remain below freezing while the warm air aloft drops rain. Freezing rain is formed as it falls through the lower, sub-freezing air.

A goal of the National Weather Service is to provide information on winter storms with enough advanced warning to allow the public, as well as community leaders, to prepare for and deal with adverse, and sometimes dangerous, weather conditions. As the threat of severe winter weather gets closer and the confidence in the location and timing of the event increases, the National Weather Service issues various bulletins that become increasingly more specific. Here is what they mean and what you should do:

Winter Storm Outlook
Issued for potential winter hazards that may develop in the next 3 to 7 days. It is intended to provide information to those who need considerable lead time to prepare for the event. You should stay tuned to local media or NOAA weather radio for updates. Evaluate your emergency action plan and the resources you have in your home and car for dealing with a severe winter storm.

Winter Storm Watch
Issued when the risk of hazardous winter weather has increased, but occurrence, location and timing are still somewhat uncertain. A watch is issued when there is a significant threat of severe winter weather in the next 12 to 48 hours. You should prepare immediately to assure that all emergency plans and resources are in place.

Winter Storm Warning
Issued when a hazardous winter event is occurring, is imminent, or has a very high probability of occurrence. A warning is used for conditions posing a threat to life and property. You should stay indoors if at all possible until the storm ends. Limit travel to only what is essential.

Winter Weather Advisory
Issued for less serious winter weather conditions that will cause significant inconvenience. If you are cautious, these situations should not be life threatening.

Winter Storm Warnings
These warnings are issued when any combination of freezing rain, sleet, wind and snow occur over an area. When any one of these elements strikes an area, a specific warning, such as “Heavy Snow Warning,” or “Freezing Rain Warning” will be issued.

Heavy Snow Warnings
The amount of snow required for this warning to be issued varies by region and elevation. Low lying areas that normally receive little snow only require 2 to 4 inches of snowfall for a warning to be issued. On the other hand, in mountainous areas, where nearly every storm brings at least 6 inches of snow, 8 to 10 inches of snowfall are required for a warning to be issued. In general, a heavy snow warning means that road crews will have some difficulty keeping roads open and snow-free making travel difficult for motorists at best and impossible at worst.

Blizzard Warnings
The term “blizzard” is normally associated with severe winter weather in the northern plains where northwest winds bring snow and frigid temperatures. While relatively common in the plains, blizzards, or near blizzard conditions, also happen in the Pacific Northwest. The National Weather Service defines a blizzard as a combination of wind 35 mph or greater and snowfall with visibility frequently less than ΒΌ mile.

Ice Storms
Ice storms in the Pacific Northwest are an infrequent occurrence, but can be extremely damaging. Across interior locations of the Pacific Northwest, valley locations will have temperatures below freezing when a warm winter storm blows overhead. Rain, falling out of the overhead storm passes through the sub-freezing surface air and turns to freezing rain, or sleet. These conditions cause trees to snap, power lines to fall and make roads nearly impossible to navigate.

Thousands of avalanches occur each winter in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. With the enormous popularity of winter sports, this poses a risk to skiers, hikers, and snowmobilers. This risk is very real. Each year people lose their lives when avalanches bury them. While thousands of avalanches occur in the back country, avalanches can happen anywhere the slop is steep enough with a heavy snow load. Avalanches typically occur during or just after snowstorms and most occur on a slope of 30 to 45 degrees. By waiting 36 hours after a big snowstorm to engage in winter sport activities, allows the snow to settle. If you stay in the valleys away from avalanche chutes, in stands of dense trees, or on gentle slopes, you can minimize your risk of getting caught in an avalanche.

Avalanche Safety Rules
Never travel alone. Always have at least one companion with you. If you are alone and get trapped by an avalanche, chances are no one will find you til spring.

If crossing a slope that may be prone to avalanches, do it one person at a time. This will minimize the impact on your party if an avalanche is accidentally released.

Adapted from official statements of the National Weather Service Staff
as well as local and state Emergency Management officials.