If you’ve been using the terms blizzard and snowstorm interchangeably, stop! Scientists say that the two weather patterns are completely different. Let’s break it down.

Blizzards and snowstorms are related, in that they both come from the same parent: a storm system. Cold air traveling from the north collides with warm air rising from the south and creates a storm system. This results in snow, wind, and reduced visibility.

A snowstorm that gets created as a result of a storm system, includes snowfall and very little wind. Visibility remains unaffected. The amount of snow does play into whether you’re experiencing a snowstorm. The more the snow and the faster it falls and covers the ground, the more probable it is that you’re out in a snowstorm. Snowstorms can last a long time but if there isn’t any wind, it doesn’t constitute a blizzard. However, it may disrupt flight schedules (an aircraft passing through a cold cloud causes rime on the wings), make transport by road dangerous, and cause power outages. It also causes conditions like frostbite and hypothermia, if you’re exposed to it very long.

Blizzards are accompanied by winds that gust at 35 miles per hour. The wind causes snowdrifts and can create what is scientifically called a whiteout (a phenomenon where sunlight is reflected by snow or ice in every direction). Whiteouts cause visibility to fall and can be disorienting. In essence, ice and snow freeze mid-fall and wreaks havoc with your sense of direction, perception of depth, and balance. During a blizzard, the horizon appears to blend into the land, and finding your way out of one becomes difficult. The impact of a blizzard on a community is also very different from that of a snowstorm. They cause a drop in productivity and sometimes even loss of life.