We all know about hurricanes, tornadoes, and blizzards. They’re some of the most common weather events you can experience in the United States and beyond. But up until a few winters ago, you might not have known what a bomb cyclone was. You weren’t alone if you thought it was a new slang to explain a very cool event. Get ready to be surprised by a few other obscure weather terms.
Don’t laugh. This is a real thing. You might be asking yourself, “How can it possibly thunder during a snowstorm?” But it does happen. Often. Officially, thundersnow can go by other names like winter thunderstorm or thundersnowstorm (all one word on purpose). So what is it? Just like a regular rainstorm, there’s thunder and lightning except the precipitation is snow instead of rain. The mechanics are the same as in a “traditional” storm. The cooler air in the environment interacts with the warmer air within the clouds to create a charge. Severe thundersnow events can be accompanied by hail.
This sounds pretty dreamy. Sea smoke is essentially just fog in a smoky form that only occurs over bodies of water. Cool air passes over warm water to create condensation in the form of fog. So, what makes this version different from the traditional fog? It might seem like we’re splitting hairs, but sea smoke tends not to last as long as traditional fog and usually occurs only in bitter-cold weather.
How could a tornado possibly have so many categories? This and the next unique weather phenomenon are a bit of a misnomer. While they share half of their name with tornadoes, the mechanics behind them are different. A tornado appears when there’s a perfect, ahem, storm of warm and cold air that meet abruptly. A gustnado is when ground-based air begins to move in a vortex motion. Usually, these occur at the edges of a storm front. Although not required, a gustnado can also create cloud-like condensation and is often seen through the amount of debris they move. Gustnadoes typically aren’t as dangerous as their stronger tornado cousin, but on rare occasions, they have caused damage like at the Indiana State Fair stage collapse that killed five people and injured dozens in 2011.
And then we shift to the firenado. Once again, a firenado is in no way related to tornadoes when we focus solely on their cause and formation. Much like a gustnado, a firenado appears when surface air begins to move in a vortex formation. Except for this time, that movement takes place in a fire event or around ash, creating the visual effect of a “fire tornado” or a fire whirl. A firenado is usually seen during major fire events like wildfires and volcanic eruptions where independent wind currents can occur and spread the fire farther than the original burn zone. Because of this, this unique weather event is considered far more dangerous than a gustnado.
Don’t giggle. This is a real thing. Anyone with curly or frizz-prone hair will appreciate that there’s finally a one-word term that explains what happens when the humidity makes your hair swell up to something three times the size of your head. Swullocking is an old-timey word that basically means it’s humid out, you’re going to have a bad hair day, and you’re going to be gross, hot and sticky. So this summer, just say, “I tried, but it’s swullocking today, and I chose to wear my hair in a bun.”
"Derecho" isn’t just how you say “right” or “straight” (when giving directions) in Spanish, depending on the context of your sentence. In the weather world, "derecho" also refers to a massive wind storm. But like the Spanish word, it refers to a straight-line wind storm that usually precedes a severe thunderstorm. And we’re not kidding when we say wind storm. Derechos can produce hurricane-force winds, heavy rains, flash floods, and tornadoes. Part of why this weather event is so damaging is that there’s usually no warning before it occurs. In fact, they’re the warning sign of an impending severe thunderstorm.
Yet another awkward word makes the list. A blenky refers to very light snow. If it sounds foreign, that’s because many of us call it “snow showers” or “a dusting of snow.” "Blenky" can trace its origins to an 18th-century word that meant ash or cinders.
A haboob refers to a sudden sandstorm that occurs in very specific locations. In particular, haboobs can take place only in dusty parts of the world that are also extremely hot and dry. The name is derived from Arabic and was often used to describe sudden sandstorms in the Middle East and North Africa.
Curious about more obscure weather terms? Check out this list of 32 lesser-known words to describe weather events.