What is smoke on the water? That and other unusual weather terms explained

Have you heard of a snownado? How about a steam devil? 

These are just a couple of the unusual terms used to describe unusual weather phenomena, some of which can be dangerous but others are simply fascinating to witness.

What Is a Snownado?

A snownado sounds like it would be a tornado made out of snow. It may look like a tornado but it can happen when the sky is clear, according to Nelson Vaz of the National Weather Service.

"The snownado is really more of a snow whirl, not connected really to any clouds — it can happen in clear skies," Vaz told FOX 5 NY. "You need dry, powdery snow. As that wind comes across, you get a little turbulence. Vorticity helps to spin that up, dry powdery snow into a little funnel. Usually, they are pretty short-lived and not really very impactful."

What Is Smoke on the Water a.k.a. a Steam Devil?

Another rare weather event is smoke on the water. This is an eerie and sometimes beautiful phenomenon that occurs over a body of water. It is also known as a steam devil.

"That's in the winter where you have a very cold air mass coming across relatively warmer waters. You basically get the steam like you have with a cup of coffee — that steam coming off the water, evaporating and condensating into almost like a fog," Vaz explained. "A little wind helps to spin that little bit of turbulence. It looks like a little vortex of steam. They're probably not rising much more than 50 to 100 feet sometimes, at the most. They would dissipate quickly as they come on land."

What Is an Ice Tsunami?

From a steam devil to an ice tsunami? Yes, tsunamis can be made out of ice. This weather phenomenon usually occurs on the Great Lakes, such as Lake Erie, which can have up 80% ice coverage during the winter, according to science writer Stephanie Drimmer.

"During the springtime, some lakes are still frozen but the ice is starting to melt, and as it melts, it can crack," Drimmer, the author of National Geographic Kids Ultimate Weatherpedia, added. "If you happen to get strong winds blowing through the area at just the right time, they can break up the ice and push chunks of it towards the edge of the water. The ice piles up on itself and it creates a wall that resembles a tsunami. These ice tsunamis can be taller than a house."

What Is a Dust Storm a.k.a. a Haboob?

We often hear about global dust storms on Mars. That same phenomenon happens here on Earth and is called a haboob.

"And it's almost a wall of dust that could be 1,500 feet up into the air heading towards your location. So it almost could look like a wall of dust, which is really a wall of wind that picked up that dust coming in," Vaz said. "They're not uncommon in the Southwest United States and can also be common in other areas like the Sahara in northern Africa."

Drimmer said dust storms can be terrifying.

"They can blot out the sky, they can be thousands of feet high, and they can even travel all the way across oceans," she added.

What Is a Bomb Cyclone?

And then you've heard us talk about bomb cyclones in the New York area.

"It's something to help illustrate what we're dealing with when we're seeing a low-pressure system. Those typical ones we see in the fall and winter here that is really rapidly intensifying," Vaz said. "What we look for is a 24-millibars drop in pressure of that low-pressure system in 24 hours."

This quick drop in millibars is common in nor'easters.

"And when that happens, you're going to usually accompany with that strong winds, heavy precipitation," Vaz said. "It's a lot of lift, a lot of moisture getting to the storm."

We witnessed this in January when a nor'easter dumped up to two feet of snow on Long Island.

"Some of the most powerful storms in history in these areas have been bomb cyclones," Drimmer said. "The can sink ships, topple power lines, and blow the roofs off houses."

FOX 5 Weather Team

Wild weather can happen anywhere, anytime. The FOX 5 Weather Team has you covered. You can follow us on Twitter: Nick Gregory @NickGregoryFox5; Mike Woods @MikeWoodsFox5; Audrey Puente @AudreyPuente; and Raegan Medgie @RaeganMedgie.