Guide to Winter Watches, Advisories, and Warnings

Weather Glossary

It’s important for us as meteorologists to do our best in ensuring the public be as prepared as possible for any weather that’s thrown at us. As far as Western New York goes, we get our fair share of both wide ranging and changeable weather that includes anything from severe thunderstorms to winter storms, and even lake effect snow. You know how the saying goes, if you don’t like the weather around here, just wait 5 minutes!

Climatologically speaking, our region sees more winter weather over the course of a calendar year than severe weather so it’s important to be as familiar as possible with the latest products the National Weather Service issues during that time of year. That way when we’re communicating its impacts, you can have the best idea on what will happen in your area.

Here is the latest list of all watches, advisories and warnings you could possibly find during a winter weather event that could affect the public’s safety and daily life in any way, shape or form, summarized from the National Weather Service.

WATCH

Wind Chill Watch – Conditions are favorable for wind chill, or “feels-like” temperatures to either meet, or exceed wind chill warning criteria (-25°F) within the next 24 to 72 hours.

Winter Storm Watch – Conditions are favorable for a “winter storm event” to include heavy sleet, snow, ice, heavy snow and blowing snow combined, or a combination of these events to meet or exceed warning criteria over the next 24-72 hours. This also includes lake effect snow events with expected snow criteria at least 7″ or more in 12 hours or less; 9 inches or more in 24 hours, and expected ice 1/2″ or more.

ADVISORY

Winter Weather Advisory – A winter storm event including sleet, snow, freezing rain, snow and blowing snow, or a combination of these events will meet or exceed winter weather advisory criteria within the next 12-36 hours, but stay below warning criteria. Expected snow criteria is at least 4″+ in 12 hours or less, and anything less than 1/2″ of ice (black ice included, but optional).

Wind Chill Advisory – Wind chill temperatures will meet or exceed wind chill advisory criteria (-15°F) within the next 12-36 hours.

WARNING

Wind Chill Warning – Wind chill temperatures are expected to meet or exceed warning criteria (-25°F) within the next 12-36 hours.

Lake Effect Snow Warning – A lake effect snow event is expected to meet or exceed warning criteria within the next 12-36 hours. This includes widespread or localized lake induced snow, snow squalls or heavy snow showers that produce accumulations of at least 7″ or more within 12 hours or less. This typically affects very localized zones within the county warned area due to the narrow nature of lake bands.

Ice Storm Warning – An ice storm event is expected to meet or exceed ice warning criteria within the next 12-36 hours on the order of ice accumulations of 1/2″ or more for over half the area.

Blizzard Warning – A blizzard event is imminent or expected to occur within the next 12-36 hours. This includes sustained winds or gusts greater than or equal to 35 mph, accompanying falling/blowing snow to reduce visibility to less than 1/4 mile for 3 or more hours at a time.

Winter Storm Warning – A winter storm event including heavy sleet, snow, ice, heavy snow and blowing snow or a combination of these events, will meet or exceed warning criteria within the next 12-36 hours. Expected snow criteria is at least 7″ or more in 12 hours or less; 9″ or more in 24 hours, and ice at least 1/2″ or more.

Important Takeaways

The overall premise of a Watch vs. Warning is that a WATCH means conditions are favorable for the event to occur. A WARNING means the event is imminent, or is currently happening. Think of WATCHES as a way to prepare, and think of WARNINGS as a sign to take action.

Watches are issued with the possibility of it turning into a warning the closer to the event we get, but it’s not always the case as new data emerges and changes to the current situation occurs. Be sure to always check back with the latest information.

A Lake Effect Snow Warning is issued for my area, but the snow map has me getting 3 inches of snow. What gives?

Lake Effect Snow Warnings are issued for an entire county, but may not bring the same amount of snow to everyone based on the localized, narrow nature we know lake bands can be. It’s important to check with local sources to see what you can best expect in terms of snowfall in your area. You can get the latest updates with the forecast HERE.

Watches, Advisories and Warnings are not created equal.

Depending on where you are in the country, the criteria for these can be very different. For example, a Wind Chill Warning has slightly “warmer” criteria across parts of the Midwest. A Winter Weather Advisory for Oklahoma is issued when 2″ or more of snow mixing in with another form of precipitation is expected. Areas that aren’t as accustomed to winter weather as others will typically have much lower thresholds for advisories and warnings, since the slightest bit of winter weather is much more impactful relative to that area.

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