What is a Snow Devil?

Caitlin Dempsey


Miniature vortexes of wind can stir up snow in a formation known as a snow devil. Similar to a dirt devil, snow devils are spinning columns of snow.

Snow Devils are a vortex

Snow devils form when dry snow is picked up by gusts of winds, creating a vortex.

Also known as ‘snownadoes’, snow devils are a rare winter phenomenon.

How do Snow Devils Form?

As cold air passes over a warmer surface can create conditions for a snow devil. The warmer air rising from the surface passes through the cold air, it creates an updraft that can being to rotate. The rotating pulls the dry snow up with it, creating the snow devil.

Free weekly newsletter

Fill out your e-mail address to receive our newsletter!

A snow devil on Mount Baldy in California.
A snow devil on Mount Baldy in California. Photo: © Mark Roger Bailey/stock.adobe.com

Since surface heating is both less likely in snow areas and the heating of the surface causes the snow to become wet and heavier, snow devils are far less common than dirt devils.

Here is one captured in Austria by Heinz Petelin.


Snow Devils are Not Tornadoes

Despite also being known as snownadoes, snow devils are not tornadoes. Snow devils are typically light columns of snow that don’t cause any harm.

Snow tornadoes are winter tornadoes that occur during the winter months of December, January, and February that are often accompanied by heavy snow.


D. Storr (1972) Snow devils ‐ A meteorological oddity. Atmosphere. 10:1, 23-25, DOI: 10.1080/00046973.1972.9648329

Galway, J. G., & Pearson, A. (1981). Winter tornado outbreaks. Monthly Weather Review109(5), 1072-1080. https://doi.org/10.1175/1520-0493(1981)109<1072:WTO>2.0.CO;2


Photo of author
About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.