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These snow rollers will knock your socks off

Large snow rollers spotted in Pennsylvania
Photo: Marianne Atkinson

A rare phenomena occurring once every couple years around the world has hit parts of Pennsylvania and Ohio this week.

While driving along I-80 in western Pennsylvania on Monday, a huge cluster of what appeared to be rolls of toilet paper invaded the median of the highway. At first I thought they were stacks of snow covered hay. Later that day I discovered they were "snow rollers" and were so unusual that they became an online sensation on social media sites and regional TV stations.

Snow rollers are most common in mountainous or hilly terrain. Basically, strong winds pick up moist snow and blow it along the ground, eventually building a cylinder of snow, which is often hollow in the middle. When the snow roller grows too large for the wind to propel it farther, it stops.

Here are the optimal conditions for snow roller generation, according to the National Weather Service:

  • Existing icy or crusty snow cover, so additional snow will not stick to it
  • Additional wet, loose snow on top of the icy, crusty snow cover
  • Wind strong enough to scoop out balls of snow and propel snow roller forward
  • At least some slope to the ground

A quick search of the Internet found photos and video at WPXI Pittsburgh, PA, Newsnet5 in Cleveland, OH, and NBC4 Columbus, OH.

Snow rollers can be as large as barrels, as you can see in this photo from Du Bois, Pennsylvania captured by nature lover (and my sister) - Marianne Atkinson. Her reaction to seeing them around her property: "There have been local people posting pics of them on Facebook. So, I looked up the hill and by golly, we had them too! My mouth dropped open in amazement!" Marianne also said, "The large snow rollers were at least a foot in diameter! It is cool how you can see the layers, sort of like the growth rings on trees!"

Needless to say, I wish I would have taken some of my own photos along I-80; but stopping for non-emergency reasons on interstates is illegal. In this case I'll just have to adopt a phrase used by Cleveland sports fans regarding their losing teams - "there's always next year."

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