With all this weird weather, what's next? Earthquake snow?
Don't snicker. It's real — in Illinois, this winter.
But we shouldn't be shocked by any new weather or terms. This season's extreme, climatological combo is as amazing as it is exhausting. It seems every day we learn a fresh, exciting reason to hate BizarroWinter2014.
Monday's maniacal mix featured graupel, which sounds like something the Hamburglar says. But it's also known as snow grain, snow pellets and (seriously) tapioca snow. It happens when droplets of water freeze on snowflakes, forming tiny frozen balls.
"It's like really small hail," he said James Auten, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Lincoln.
Graupel is softer than hail. Well, supposedly. Mid-morning Monday, I was getting attacked with a face full of what I thought was graupel, but it stung. I guess it could've been ice. Then again — and this is just my conjecture here — it could've been a rogue strain of Illinois graupel that's more painful and horrid than any other graupel in the history of the world. This winter, would such a claim or discovery surprise you? I didn't think so.
Further, in high altitudes, graupel can gob together, but its softness and instability can cause avalanches. Illinois doesn't get avalanches. Yet.
But Illinois does get thunder snow, as on Monday. Thundersnow is as rare as graupel, and for the same reason: in the winter, moist air doesn't rise fast. But if that happens, Old Man Winter goes BOOM.
Plus, if there's thunder, there's lightning — though it's usually hard to see in the winter .
"Usually, it's cloud to cloud," Auten said. "But sometimes you get cloud to ground."
Sound scary? Auten says he's never heard of anyone in Illinois getting zapped by a bolt of thundersnow lightning. Still, I'd say you'd be tempting fate by carrying an umbrella out there this year.
Meanwhile, make sure to keep an eye out for snow rollers, which can happen when wind whips up during snowstorms. And in Champaign Monday, wind gusts hit 66 mph, Auten said. Wind that harsh can shove snow along the ground, just as kids do when making a snowball. Soon, the snowball rolls into a snow boulder — like a wintertime tumbleweed, but packing a powerful punch. This year, I'd have no trouble imagining some poor sap desperately dashing down a Peoria side street, one step ahead of a giant boulder, like Indiana Jones in the cave in "Raiders of the Lost Ark."
Plus, think if a 66-mph wind were to hit a thundersnow cloud. Could that spur cloud rotation? Tornado snow?
"Theoretically, it could happen," Auten said. "I supposed it happened somewhere, sometime."
Page 2 of 2 - With that in mind, and with thundersnow exploding outside, I kiddingly asked Auten, "Yeesh, what's next? Earthquake snow?"
Auten paused, then chuckled. Uh-oh. "Actually," he said. "it happened in Rockford this year."
It's officially dubbed a cryoseism, but also known as a frost quake or ice quake. During fast-falling temperatures like this season's, water beneath the earth's surface can freeze and expand quickly.
"It might make a rumble," Auten says. "It might make a loud boom."
That's what happened in Rockford in December, along with Quincy earlier this month. But frost quakes won't register on the Richter scale.
"They're not going to cause damage," Auten said. "They're not like the New Madrid Fault."
And they might even be pretty. Sometimes, flashing lights can spark before or during a frost quake, possibly from electrical charges caused by the compression of rocks. Far out. Sounds like something to watch while listening to Pink Floyd.
Though the ground will be saturated this week, Auten didn't foresee any frost quakes for Peoria: the temp won't drop too far or fast.
"Then again," Auten said, laughing, "during this winter, nothing would surprise me."
But the snow has to end sometime, right? Apparently, yes — but maybe not for a while. As a record-latest seasonal snowfall in Peoria, a tenth of an inch fell on May 8 twice, in 1923 and 1966. Meantime, the earliest seasonal snowfall to his Peoria was Sept. 25, 1942, when an inch fell.
It wouldn't be surprising if we got snow on each date this year. What's the big deal? That still would leave three whole months without any snow. That might not sound like much, but right now it sounds like heaven.
Assuming, of course, there's no graupel or thundersnow in heaven.
PHIL LUCIANO is a Journal Star columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com, facebook.com/philluciano, 686-3155 or (800) 225- 5757, Ext. 3155. Follow him on Twitter @LucianoPhil.