Snow and lightning?

I know this question must’ve already been answered here, but my searches were futile! So, why isn’t there lightning or thunder during snowstorms, but these do exist in rainstorms?

Or am I just blind?


In the Great Blizzard of March '92, lightning and thunder accompanied the storm throughout much of the US S.E.

Weird. I was just thinking about posting a question on this very subject.

I can only remember one time for sure when I was in a thunder snow storm. It was in northern Illinois ten-to-fifteen years ago, and it was very weird.

Anyway, I know it can happen because I saw and heard it, however it must be incredibly rare.

A websearch for “thundersnow” will find information on this. See, for instance:

The short answer appears to be that you do sometimes get thunder and lightning during snowstorms, but the conditions required are fairly crucial.

Thanks for the links, raygirvan. They look interesting.

Okay… what are said conditions? And why don’t these conditions usually occur?


On Christmas it snowed here in NY, and there was thunder and lightning later in the evening.

We had a memorable thundersnowstorm on March 8, 1984. Four inches fell in one hour and visibility was near zero.

Okay … what are the said conditions?

Best read the links. There are a few papers online, but I admit I don’t know enough meteorology to understand the context. We’re talking stuff like "… within a broad region of upper-level divergence in a coupled ULJ pattern … ".

So in order to have thunderstorms during snow you need the same ingredients as any thunderstorm: convection and building up of charge differentials. Regular thunderheads are formed by convection, but convection in snow events is not usual. The ice crystals, as described in the second link, provide the basis for the charge separation.

Nobody knows how thunderstorms work. Well, they know how the charged droplets become separated into two populations (larger ones fall faster because of air viscosity). But how do the droplets become differentially charged in the first place? This is still one of the great unanswered questions. There are many competing theories about it, but the problem still hasn’t been “solved.”

It’s hard to bring a functioning storm cloud into the lab. Some brave scientists have occasionally tried flying planes through thunderstorms, but I think this involved studies of aircraft lightning strikes.

6:30 a.m. on Saturday, December 30, 1999. New York/New Jersey was having a huge blizzard. Suddenly there was a huge bang and the sky light up. It blinded me for a few seconds. I thought a plane or an electrical transformer had exploded.

It was a huge bolt of lightning. Truly spectacular.

I suspect that it happens more often than we realize. But the acoustical and visual properties of snow are such that we don’t see or hear it as easily as we would with rain.

I have witnessed thunder and lightning in a snowstorm on more than one occasion, so it’s not like a “once in a lifetime” thing.

I’ve seen it.

In '68, when I was a boy in Chicago. Saw it on my walk home from school. My parents still don’t believe me.

And, some earlier threads on this subject:

One time when we were skiing they had to evacuate everyone from the chairlifts because a thunderstorm was approaching, which I thought was rather surprising. We decided to head back to the lodge after we were informed of the evacuation when trying to board the lift. The storm that came in a few minutes later brought lightning and thunder, and snow (I was expecting rain). I was about 14 at the time. It was the first time I had ever witnessed such a phenomenon.

Several years back we had lighting during a heavy snow storm. I got the impression at the time that I was the only one around who had never seen that before.

I’ve seen it exactly once and it was only snowing lightly. The cloud cover was pretty thick and low, though. This was about 12 years ago.

It happens regularly at Alta and Snowbird ski areas in Utah, I have taken vacation there and worked there and it was not an uncommon occurence at all. All the chairlifts would be evacuated, and oftentimes, the ski patrol didn’t know if the noise was from thunder or an avalanche. It is nearly impossible to know when visibility is down to about 10 feet.
It’s pretty wicked, being in a snowstorm, seeing lightning and hearing thunder.

I’m sure the article cited above was talking about the same part of Utah. Lake-effect snow drops all the time at Alta/Snowbird.