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Weather Talk: No such thing as 'too cold to snow'

When I was a grade school kid and living in Alabama, we learned that when the weather turned really cold, it was "too cold to snow."

I have heard that same misnomer since I've lived here in the North, too. I have noticed that the cutoff for weather "too cold to snow" appears to have a colder standard here in the North.

Although it is true that cold air tends to also be dry air, there remains a fundamental flaw in the concept of "too cold to snow." Snowflakes are formed up in the clouds, not in the air we experience near the ground.

Frequently, especially in times of cold weather, the air down here is colder than the air up in the clouds. It is not unusual for the air a few thousand feet up to be both warmer and laden with moisture, creating significant snow even when the surface temperatures seem "too cold to snow."

A snowstorm in January 1996 produced 18 inches of snow, with much of that falling into air ranging from 10 to 20 below.

John Wheeler

John was born in Baton Rouge, LA, and grew up near Birmingham, Alabama. As a teenager, his family moved to Madison, Wisconsin, and later to a small town in northeast Iowa. John traces his early interest in weather to the difference in climate between Alabama and Wisconsin. He is a graduate of Iowa State University with a degree in meteorology. Like any meteorologist, John is intrigued by extremes of weather, especially arctic air outbreaks and winter storms.  John has been known to say he prefers his summers to be hot but in winter, he prefers the cold.  When away from work, John enjoys long-distance running and reading.  John has been a meteorologist at WDAY since May of 1985.

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