Coloradans are likely to see a unique type of weather alert pop up on their phones this winter—it’s called a snow squall warning, and the National Weather Service is rolling it out nationwide after testing it last year.

Not sure what a snow squall is? Let me explain: According to the NWS, a snow squall is “an intense, but limited duration, period of moderate to heavy snowfall, accompanied by gusty surface winds resulting in reduced visibilities and whiteout conditions.”

When you receive a snow squall warning (or any other type of severe weather alert) on your phone, it means that impactful weather is imminent. Like most other weather phenomena, as long as you’re prepared for the weather at hand, you should be fine. But it’s important to understand what these threats actually mean, and what you should do if you see one pop up on your phone this winter. So let’s dive in:

Tell me more about snow squalls.
If you live in or visit Colorado, you’re likely familiar with snow—you know, that frozen precipitation that falls from the sky. It’s beautiful and fun, but it can also cause headaches for commuters.

Squalls are a little harder to understand if you’re not a weather geek like I am. A squall is a narrow band of intense wind with reduced visibility from whatever type of precipitation is falling at the time. So a severe storm squall line brings heavy rain and winds, while a tropical storm or hurricane squall brings strong winds, rain, and reduced of visibility for a relatively short amount time. A snow squall is similar, but instead of rain and wind causing the reduced visibility, it’s snow and wind.

So, these warnings are important, especially for commuters.
They certainly are. The NWS in Denver/Boulder will issue snow squall warnings for its County Warning Area (the area that each office is responsible for forecasting for) starting November 1. The NWS in Cheyenne tested the alerts last winter with success, and now they’re rolling it out nationwide in hopes of alerting the public of the impact of heavy snow, dropping temperatures, and gusty winds in a timely manner.

Why are these alerts being added now?
For one, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) new GOES-16 satellite, improvements in Doppler radar, increased supercomputing capacity, and more accurate and detailed weather models are helping NOAA forecasters more quickly identify snow squalls and other localized short-term weather events. All of the above helps forecasters and the public when treacherous weather is approaching or happening.

As you know, here in Colorado, the weather is fickle. Learning more about weather and the hazards that come with each type of event helps us all be more prepared.

What should I do if a snow squall warning is issued for my area?
If you receive snow squall warning on your mobile device, avoid or delay travel until the squall passes through. A squall will typically move through in 30 to 60 minutes. If you are traveling during a snow squall and can’t exit in time, reduce your speed, turn on your headlights and hazard lights and allow plenty of distance between you and the car in front of you. It’s also best not to slam on your brakes during a snow squall since the roads will likely be icy or snow-covered. Slamming on your brakes could contribute to the loss of vehicle control and also increase the risk of a chain-reaction crash.

As the winter months approach, make sure you know where you’ll receive those warnings—they should be sent directly to your phone, as well as through your weather apps—how to react to those warnings, and what to do if you’re stuck outside in the elements.

Andy Stein
Andy Stein
Andy Stein is a freelance meteorologist with experience working on both local and national television.