National Weather Service testing new snow squall warnings

In a Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016 file photo, emergency crews work the scene of a multiple car pileup on I-96 between Webberville and Fowlerville, Mich. The National Weather Service is testing a new snow squall warning system designed to help motorists in The Associated Press
In a Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016 file photo, emergency crews work the scene of a multiple car pileup on I-96 between Webberville and Fowlerville, Mich. The National Weather Service is testing a new snow squall warning system designed to help motorists in whiteout condition avoid chain reaction crashes at high speeds. During the winter, the agency now issues advisories and warnings involving storms that can last for a day or two over a wide area. The warnings are distributed by the media and other methods. (Dave Wasinger/Lansing State Journal via AP, File)

The National Weather Service is testing a new snow squall warning system designed to help motorists in whiteout conditions avoid deadly chain reaction crashes at high speeds.

During the winter, the agency now issues advisories and warnings involving storms that can last for a day or two over a wide area.

Snow squalls, however, occur over a much smaller area and typically last less than an hour — often with little warning.

David Soroka, head of winter programs for the weather service, said the system being tested would provide warnings for a smaller geographic area — similar to summer thunderstorm warnings — in areas that have been prone to snow squalls.

In addition, testing will be done in Arizona on a new warning system for dust storms, which can cause similar problems for motorists.

The snow squall warning system is being tested in areas of New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Michigan and Wyoming, with the information distributed by media and other methods.

In many snow squalls, "people are driving the speed limit, it's dry, it's sunny or it's not snowing ... and so you're not expecting to be driving in that kind of bare-knuckle situation, and you're not prepared for it," Soroka said.

If the test proves successful, the agency plans to expand it nationwide the following winter.

The new dust storm warning system will be tested in Phoenix and Tucson. Such storms throughout the Southwest and areas of Texas have been blamed for deadly chain-reaction crashes.

Soroka said the tests are part of an effort by the weather service to improve its forecasting services on everything from localized weather events to large, destructive hurricanes.

"We're always looking to improve lead time to give people more warning, we're always trying to improve accuracy and get things down to more of a smaller target area so we're not over-warning," he said.

Soroka said the snow squall testing is concentrated in the Northeast because the region has been affected by deadly interstate crashes.

"We're talking that corridor from Pennsylvania, New York, up into New England," he said. "And we wanted to try it out in a couple of other areas, because we know it's not limited to there."

Last December, three people died and about a dozen others were hurt in a pileup involving about 50 vehicles caused by a sudden snow squall on Interstate 96 near Lansing, Michigan. In February 2016, three people died and about 70 were hurt in a pileup involving about 60 vehicles on Interstate 78 in central Pennsylvania during a snow squall.

In Wyoming, some 50 vehicles collided when blinding snow quickly slickened a stretch of Interstate 80 in April 2016 between Cheyenne and Laramie.

"The fact that virtually all of Interstate 80 is above a mile high (1.6 kilometers) across all of southern Wyoming certainly leads to the fact that we see some very harsh winter conditions," said Chad Hahn, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Cheyenne.

Aimee Inama, spokeswoman for the Wyoming Department of Transportation, said the snow squall warnings should show up on the agency's website and help motorists prepare for winter travel.

"Anybody that's lived in Wyoming knows that weather can change in an instant," Inama said.

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