Weather ambassador from Canada: What is a clipper system?

As we struggle through cold, windy and blustery conditions in the Black Hills again, the term "clipper" has been used to describe these particular systems - but what exactly is a clipper?

BLACK HILLS, S.D. – Not all storms systems are made the same, particularly when it comes to winter storm systems in North America.

Depending on where a system originates, it can have different characteristics such as bitterly cold air, or an abundance of moisture.

The Black Hills is familiar with systems such as a Colorado Low from the south, monsoonal systems from the desert southwest and of course clipper systems; where do clipper system originate?

Picture 1

  • The full nickname is an “Alberta Clipper”, given its origins usually begin off the Canadian Rockies in Alberta, Canada.
  • The term “Clipper” originates from a type of ship in the 18th century; clippers were the fastest ship of their time, able to run circles around other ships.

Picture 2

  • An Alberta Clipper low pressure system has the same characteristics as a clipper ship, moving fast across the northern plains and strafing large areas in a short amount of time.
  • Along the progressing cold front, intense snow bands can form ahead of cold, dry arctic air that is ushered in by bitter winds off of the Canadian Rockies.
  • These systems don’t stick around for long and come from the interior of the continent, so they usually lack appreciable moisture.
  • Snow is generally dry and fluffy, using the cold air to squeeze out very little moisture into appreciable, dry accumulations.
  • Sometimes, these systems can encounter a separate system moving northward; this could lead to large amounts of moisture being injected into the original system. These are your stronger clippers that can surprise even seasoned meteorologists.

If you’re ever looking for that BIG snowfall with large amounts of moisture, you’ll need to look elsewhere. Although we received several inches of snow across the Black Hills from these clippers… the water content of these accumulations is poor. Rapid City received almost 8″ of snow with only 0.2″ of water… we need gulf moisture associated with Colorado Lows to get the best out of our winter systems.

If one day you find yourself with pleasant weather, and the next is cold, dry and windy with a fresh coat of powder-dry snow, you can usually thank clipper for that!

Categories: Local News, Weather Daily