Bomb Cyclone, Colorado Hooker, Pineapple Express: Here’s What Those Colorful Winter Storm Names Mean

Nation/World
Snow is seen covering parked cars during a winter storm Jan. 13, 2019, in Washington, DC. (Credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Snow is seen covering parked cars during a winter storm Jan. 13, 2019, in Washington, DC. (Credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

You look up the forecast for your area only to see the meteorologist talking about a bomb cyclone blizzard headed your way. And next week there will be a Great Lakes Cutter, followed by an Inland Runner. What on earth do those even mean? These are all various names given to storm systems that can occur in winter.

Here are the nine most commonly heard winter storm types.

Blizzard

The title blizzard is often tossed around casually about a big snowstorm. But to officially qualify as a blizzard, a storm must meet the following criteria for three hours or longer. It must have sustained (constant) winds or frequent gusts of 35 mph or higher, as well as falling or blowing snow, reducing visibility to under a quarter of a mile.

Bomb cyclone

This term is used for a rapidly intensifying storm. The intensification qualification is based on the storm’s central pressure, which is measured in millibars.

For a storm to get the designation of Bomb cyclone or “bomb out,” it must generally have a pressure drop of at least 24 millibars in 24 hours or less. Since these storms intensify so fast, they can some times catch people off guard as they bring strong winds, heavy rain or snow that can lead to widespread travel disruptions.

Nor’easter

This storm impacts the northeastern coast of the United States but that is not where it gets its name. The only technical qualification for a Nor’easter is that the prevailing winds along the coast must be out of the Northeast.

Most of these storms develop somewhere between Georgia and New Jersey, within 100 miles of the coast. As these storms progress northeastward, they generally achieve their maximum intensity near New England or the Canadian maritime provinces.

They are responsible for bringing heavy rain, snow, gale-force winds, rough seas and coastal erosion. While these storms can occur any time of year, they are most frequent and in their most potent form between September and April.

Some of the more violent Nor’easters have caused billions of dollars in damage due to travel delays, widespread power outages, and disastrous coastal flooding.

Inland Runner

Also called a Coastal Runner, it is an area of low pressure that travels northeast along the Eastern Seaboard, cutting through cities such as Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Boston.

These are very similar to Nor’easters, but the center of the storm tends to be farther inland. So, instead of snow along the coast, it remains heavy rain, while interior New England and upstate New York often get heavy snowfall.

Appalachian Runner

As the name implies, this is a low-pressure system that cuts through the southern Appalachian Mountains of Georgia and the Carolinas and moves into the northern Appalachians of Pennsylvania and New York.

For Mid-Atlantic states such as Maryland, Washington and Virginia, the App Runners usually bring mostly rain, with some occasional ice or sleet mixed in. For areas along the Ohio Valley, snow can pile up quickly.

Cold-air damming can also impact these storms.

This is when cold air is forced from the northeast against the Appalachians. The mountain range acts as a dam, keeping the cold air pooled like a lake. That shallow layer of cold air allows for freezing temperatures to remain at the surface as warmer moist air moves over it.

Great Lakes Cutter

These are storms that develop over the Plains and track and move northeast directly over the Great Lakes. This storm puts the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions on the warmer side of the system, bringing all rain.

The Midwest, however, will be the cooler side, and due to prevailing wind direction can often get some good lake-effect enhancement snow bands.

Much like in an Appalachian Runner, if cold-air-damming is in place before the storm system hits, then a little front-end snow, ice or sleet may occur on the eastern side before transitioning into rain.

Alberta Clipper

These are fast-moving low-pressure systems that originate in the Canadian province of Alberta and move southeast into the United States.

These systems usually have strong winds, colder temperatures and snow — although snow totals don’t tend to be too high with these systems because of how fast they can zip through an area.

If this same system originates from a different Canadian province, it receives a different name, despite all sharing the same storm characteristics: Manitoba Mauler and Saskatchewan Screamer.

Pineapple Express

This name is given to a very specific series of storms that originate in the Hawaiian Islands. They travel along a very narrow corridor in the upper atmosphere of the Pacific Ocean and end up hitting along the West Coast.

In more generic terms, the Pineapple Express is called an atmospheric river. Atmospheric rivers come in all shapes and sizes. Still, those that contain the most significant amounts of water vapor and the strongest winds — like that of the Pineapple Express — can affect the entire west coast of North America. It’s like directing a fire hose of heavy rain and snow, triggering flooding, mudslides, disrupting travel and damaging property.

Colorado Hooker

These are winter storm systems that originate in Colorado on the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains and hook toward the Midwest.

It’s given the name hooker because these storms hook from the southwest to the northeast as they travel from Colorado to the Midwest.

Thanks to the cold arctic air to the north and warm, humid air from the Gulf of Mexico, these systems can swell quickly into giant winter beasts. For Chicago and other Midwestern cities, these storms bring quite impressive — sometimes historic — snowfall totals.

These storms can also be called Panhandle Hookers when they originate in the Panhandle of Oklahoma/Texas.

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