Is it a blizzard? And the Nor’easter? And what’s the difference?

On March 1, 1888, a customer at the Edward Ridley & Sons department store in New York City made a mistake. For $1,200, a customer, John J. Meisinger, bought a carload of unclaimed wooden snow shovels — 3,000 of them — to sell at the store, the story goes. It was a “ridiculously low price,” Mr. Meisinger later wrote, but at an odd time. “A lot of customers laughed at the idea of ​​me buying snow shovels at the end of the season,” he said.

Days later, a blizzard of epic proportions descended on the east of the country. “WORST STORM THE TOWN HAS EVER KNOWN. BUSINESS AND TRAVEL ARE COMPLETELY SUSPENDED”, writes a title in The New York Times on March 13. Heavy drifts of snow, 15 feet high in some places, piled up across the region.

In the end, nearly 400 people died during the Great Blizzard of 1888, including 200 in New York City. Communications, trade and travel were disrupted for days.

However, the story ended well for Mr. Meisinger, who turned a late winter profit on his snow shovels. “Ridley’s was the only store that had a large inventory of snow shovels and sold every one the first day,” he wrote. “I laughed at the other guys,” he added.

The storm of 1888 was definitely a blizzard. But what about others? Several criteria must be met for the National Weather Service to use the word “blizzard,” said Eric Guillot, winter program coordinator for the service.

The term applies only when, for at least three consecutive hours, snow is blowing or falling, winds are at least 35 miles per hour, and visibility is a quarter mile or less.

True blizzards are “unusual,” Mr. Guillot.

Canada defines a blizzard by slightly different standards, said David Phillips, senior climatologist at Environment and Climate Change Canada. Below the tree line, where the tundra meets the forest, the criteria for visibility and wind speed are almost the same as in the United States, but conditions must exist for four consecutive hours for a blizzard to form there. Above the tree line, “four hours just won’t do, but six hours or more would qualify,” Mr. Phillips.

Snow does not have to fall from the sky for a blizzard to occur, Mr. Phillips emphasized. Snow from a previous storm can be picked up by the wind and form a type of blizzard called a “ground blizzard,” he said.

Nor’easters are storm systems that form along the east coast of the country and whose winds blow from the northeast. North Easters are usually wet, said Mr. Phillips, and therefore less prone to form a dry type of snow that reduces visibility, but can sometimes lead to blizzards. The Great Blizzard of 1888, for example, began as a nor’easter.

A nor’easter can bring blizzards, but in the United States, blizzards are most common in the Upper Midwest and Great Plains, according to the Weather Service.

In these areas, Mr. Phillips said, blizzards can result from weather phenomena known as “Colorado Lows” or, further north, “Alberta Clippers.” Such storm systems originate east of the Rockies and move very quickly — like clippers — toward the Plains or the Midwest, he said.

As usual, said Mr. Phillips, the storms also bring “a lot of light, fluffy, dry snow that can lift off the ground” and reduce visibility. When they collide with a burst of arctic air, a blizzard can occur, blowing hard across the region’s flat topography, he said.

It depends on who you ask. A week after the blizzard of March 1888, The Times was already writing about the etymology of the word. “The blizzard was first used by those who first experienced it while settling the western plains,” one article read. “Until we are deprived of our own or better authority, the American theory of the American term for the American storm will stand,” it added.

Some believe that the term was borrowed from military vocabulary, said Mr. Phillips. “The interpretation that I thought was kind of neat was that it was actually used in the United States back in the 1800s,” he said. “And it referred to a strong blow, like a cannon or musket burst.”

The word “blizzard” could also be the result of a convergence of the words “blister, bluster and blitz,” a lexicographer told The Times in 2023.

Much has changed since 1888, but blizzards can still be deadly.

In December 2022, for example, a blizzard in Buffalo killed 31 people. A team of researchers from New York University subsequently found that emergency warnings from city officials did not adequately convey how life-threatening the storm could be.

The best way to protect yourself during a blizzard is to stay indoors, said Mr. Guillot from the Meteorological Service. Households should prepare to descend if necessary and have an emergency kit with clothing, blankets, enough food and water for three days (along with a can opener), first aid supplies, batteries, flashlight, charger telephone and medicines, he added.

“Having a NOAA Weather Radio so you can get the latest updates” can also help, he said, especially if your cell service drops.

If you’re at home during a blizzard and lose power and heat, close the blinds or curtains and all interior doors to conserve heat, Mr. Guillot said. And don’t forget to eat and drink. “That’s what I think people don’t do, but if you drink, it gives you energy and keeps you warmer, actually, while you’re digesting,” he said.

If you find yourself trapped in your car during a storm, Mr. Phillips said, “don’t you dare get out, because you’re going to get disoriented very, very quickly.” Let other drivers and rescuers know you’re in your car by turning on the dome light. If your car is buried in the drift, hoist a flag or other bright material outside to mark your location, he said.

Trapped drivers should also be aware of the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning from a blocked tailpipe, Mr. Phillips. Avoid “running the engine for more than 10 minutes at a time and make sure the window is slightly open,” he said.

Above all, Mr. Phillips said, pay close attention to the weatherman’s warnings. “You can get the forecast on the Internet, on your mobile phone, on the radio, in the newspaper, on television,” he said. “The availability of the warning is there, as long as they respect it.”

Kirsten Noyes and Jeff Roth contributed to the research.

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