News·6 min read

Storm Terms to Know and Help Keep You Safe

Hurricane Dorian tracking towards the Florida coast taken on September 1, 2019 in the Atlantic Ocean.
Getty Images
January 27, 2022

Everyone loves to talk about the weather. And we’ve all heard forecasts that include words like ‘squall’ or ‘storm surge’ or ‘nor’easter.’ But let’s be honest: We don’t always want to admit that we don’t know what exactly those words mean. And climate change is creating more frequent and intense storms — something we’ve already seen in the start of 2022. So it’s important to know what type of weather is heading our way, so we can be prepared and stay safe. That’s why we’ve Skimm'd some of the most common storm-related terms and ones that seem to be new. You’re welcome.


  • A combo of strong winds and blowing or heavy snow, which creates poor visibility. They can happen in many parts of the country (think: the Northeast, Midwest, Northwest). Fun fact: there’s no temperature standard to determine a blizzard. Here’s the difference between the two types of snow…

    • Blowing snow is driven by wind and causes reduced visibility. It can be snow that’s falling or snow that the wind picked up off the ground 

    • Heavy snow accumulates to at least six inches in 12 hours. 

Bomb cyclone

  • Yes, this is an actual scientific term. It's a storm that strengthens and intensifies rapidly because of a steep drop in air pressure. It’s sometimes referred to as “bombogenesis.” According to NBC News, meteorologists have compared the sudden drop in pressure to a bomb detonating. The strength of a bomb cyclone can be similar to that of a hurricane (more on that below). But bomb cyclones typically happen in cooler weather (like late fall or winter) — and hurricanes usually occur in warmer weather (like the summer). Some of the more recent bomb cyclones in the US have happened in 2018 on the East Coast and 2019 on the West Coast.


  • Pronounced deh-REY-cho. It’s a widespread wind storm that’s associated with a band of quickly moving showers or thunderstorms. It can cause similar damage to a tornado. And they’re more common in the warm season. The National Weather Service says that derechos in the US usually happen along two axes: from the upper Mississippi Valley into the Ohio Valley, and from the southern Plains into the mid-Mississippi Valley. And a derecho recently hit Pennsylvania and New Jersey in June 2020.


  • It’s self-explanatory and can be a side effect from certain storms. But not all flooding is created, er, happens equally. See...

    • Coastal flood: Flooding along a coastal area. It’s caused by high tides, persistent onshore winds, or a hurricane storm surge.

    • Flash flood: Flooding that happens suddenly during or shortly after heavy rains or quick release of water (like a dam break). 


  • A small column of air that rapidly sinks toward the ground from a thunderstorm and creates a burst of strong winds. Microbursts don’t last long (think: five to 10 minutes), but max wind speeds can hit higher than 100 mph and they can cause similar or worse damage than some tornadoes (think: downing powerlines, destroying homes).


  • A storm along the East Coast, with winds typically coming from the northeast. They can happen anytime during the year, but are most frequent between September and April. They pretty much always bring some type of precipitation like rain or snow and winds. And they can cause disastrous coastal flooding, as well as billions of dollars in damage. Major nor’easters have happened as far back as 1888, and a more recent example: the one that hit the Northeast in early 2021, which brought more than a foot of snow to many areas.

Polar vortex

  • Technically not a storm...but it might keep you indoors like a storm does. It’s freezing cold air that usually sits on top of the North Pole. Except sometimes it migrates south toward the US and causes record-breaking low temps during the winter in many parts of the country. Experts have predicted that a polar vortex will hit the US this winter.


  • A sudden, strong wind associated with a storm. Ex: a snow squall is a sudden fall of snow that makes it hard to see and potentially dangerous to drive. Utah faced multiple snow squall warnings in late 2021. There are also…

    • Squall lines: A group of storms arranged in a line, which usually include squalls. They’re more common in the eastern part of the US, especially during spring.

Storm surge

  • The abnormal rise in seawater caused by a storm’s winds pushing water onto the shore. A storm surge depends on factors like the intensity, size, and speed of the storm. They can cause serious damage to beaches and coastlines, and can increase water levels by as much as 30 feet in a storm. Storm surge was a major concern during Hurricane Ida in August 2021. Surges are separate from the normal sea level and expected tide level. Which brings us to...

    • Storm tide: The total observed seawater level during a storm. Aka when you add normal sea level + expected tide level + storm surge.


  • A column of air that rotates violently and touches the ground. They develop quickly from powerful thunderstorms — but they can also disappear quickly too (think: most are on the ground for less than 15 minutes). Winds from a tornado can reach 300 mph and destroy neighborhoods in a matter of seconds or minutes. The National Weather Service considers them “nature’s most violent storms.” They’re most common in two regions in the US: Florida and “Tornado Alley” (think: states in the southern plains in the US, like Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas).

Tropical cyclone

  • A system that forms over tropical or subtropical waters when a low-pressure area pairs with thunderstorms that create a circular wind flow. You might not hear this word often — but the definition can help you understand the difference between a…

    • Tropical depression: A tropical cyclone with max sustained surface winds up to 38 mph.

    • Tropical storm: Also a tropical cyclone, but upgraded. It has max sustained surface winds between 39 to 73 mph.

    • Hurricane: The most severe type of tropical cyclone. It has max sustained surface winds of 74 mph or higher. And there are levels to this. The severity of the storm is broken out into five categories, with Category 1 having the slowest wind speed (74-95 mph) and Category 5 having the fastest wind speed (157 mph or higher).


  • Same type of storm as a hurricane, but with a different location. Hurricanes happen in the Atlantic, Caribbean Sea, and the central and northeast Pacific. Typhoons happen in the northwest Pacific.

Alert, Alert: Warnings, Advisories, and Watches

Weather reports could include words like ‘winter storm watch’ or ‘tropical storm warning.’ The National Weather Service issues alerts to give people a heads-up if or when certain weather events (including blizzards, hurricanes, flooding tornadoes, tropical storms, and more) are happening, about to happen, or possible. The three types are…

  • Watch: Aka yellow alert. It’s issued when the risk of an event is possible or has increased, but when or where it’ll happen is still not confirmed. The goal of a warning is to give people enough time to set up a plan to stay safe. 

  • Advisory: Aka orange alert. It’s used for less serious conditions than warnings, but events with advisories can still cause significant problems and lead to situations that could threaten life or property.

  • Warning: Aka red alert. This is issued for a hazardous weather event or condition. It means that weather conditions are likely to pose a threat to someone’s life or property, and that people in the path should take immediate action to protect themselves.


Storms — whether in the summer or winter — can be dangerous, intense, and scary. But knowing the terms around them and how they work are important steps in keeping you and your loved one safe. Make sure you’re prepared for hurricanes or tropical storms and winter storms.

Updated on Jan. 27 to reflect the latest info around recent storms.

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