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Columbia Missourian

Thunder snow researcher at MU keeps tab on storm

By Caitlin Holland
February 21, 2013 | 12:21 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — An MU meteorologist who previously worked to develop a thunder snow measuring system is sitting this storm out at home on his laptop.

Thunder was heard in the Columbia area Thursday morning, and thunderstorms producing 2 to 3 inches of snow per hour prompted the National Weather Service in Kansas City to increase totals to 10 to 14 inches along Interstate 70 in west-central Missouri.

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Meteorologist Patrick Market said that snow chasing, the winter storm version of tornado chasing, can be risky and expensive. Snow chasing usually requires a large team working together with multiple vehicles and several researchers.

“It is really difficult to pinpoint and say, 'OK, Columbia is where we need to be,' and then actually have things happen in Columbia,” he said.

Even though he isn’t actively researching Thursday's storm, Market said he expects at least 6 inches of snow somewhere within 70 miles of where thunder occurs. That's in keeping with the National Weather Service forecast of 4 to 6 inches for Columbia.

According to the weather service, a Feb. 1, 2011, storm left Columbia with 17.7 inches of snow, but Market said only a few rumbles of thunder occurred during that event. A Nov. 30, 2006, storm featuring much more thunder and lightning produced 15.3 inches.

Thunderstorms with snow aren't different from thunderstorms in the summer. “It’s really, in principle, not that different from a summertime rain event,” he said. 

Thunder snow happens because different airstreams collide to produce a layer of warm air beneath a layer of cold air. Market's extensive thunder snow research is referenced in a Scientific American article from March 4, 2009. 

“There’s the appropriate mixture of ice crystals, snow and supercool water droplets,” Market said. “There’s actually a fair amount of water in the clouds. Everybody thinks it’s completely frozen, and that’s not true. It’s actually liquid water that hasn’t yet collided with a snow crystal.”

Here is a video from CNN of thunder snow caught on camera in Wichita, Kan.