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Weather wonders: 'Whiteout' = meteorological term with two meanings


One of the terms that High Plains residents do not like to hear during winter is "whiteout," but the term can mean different things to different people.

"'Whiteout' is one of those meteorological terms with more than one definition," said Mary Knapp, who is the state climatologist for Kansas. "Here in the Plains, it generally refers to a situation in which blowing snow has reduced visibility to near-zero."

In polar regions, however, it refers to an optical phenomenon in the atmosphere, which engulfs the observer in a white glow, Knapp said. The observer can see things, but the horizon and the clouds are indistinguishable. So, objects appear to "float," and the observer's sense of depth and orientation is lost.

"In the air during a polar whiteout, you can't tell up from down," she said.

The polar version of a whiteout usually occurs in areas of unbroken snow with a uniformly overcast sky, the climatologist said. The Plains version occurs when strong winds combine with a light powdery snow.

Knapp is in charge of the Kansas Weather Data Library, based at Kansas State University.

Information about Kansas weather is available on its website: http://www.oznet.ksu.edu/wdl/. Her "Weather Wonders" audio reports are also available on the K-State Research and Extension/Kansas Radio Network website at http://www.oznet.ksu.edu/radio/.

1 Star WK\7-B

Date: 12/31/08

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