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A significant winter storm will plow through the East. But snow, rain or ice is still in question

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By Jennifer Gray, CNN meteorologist

For millions across the South, this weekend’s winter storm is the talk of the town. Will it bring snow or ice — and how much?

Even the mid-Atlantic and Northeast will get in on the action.

So much is still to be determined, but one thing is 100% certain — it’s happening.

Bookmark this page and check back tomorrow to see how much snow is forecast this weekend

A strong storm diving south

A strong area of low pressure coming out of British Columbia will dive down across the central United States on Friday, basically heading due south. It will carry with it incredible cold from Canada — and there will be enough moisture in place to dump lots of snow across multiple regions through the weekend.

“Conditions are expected to rapidly deteriorate across parts of North Dakota tonight, before snow shifts into eastern South Dakota and southwest Minnesota on Friday morning,” the Weather Prediction Center said Thursday.

“Widespread snowfall totals greater than 4 inches are likely, with over 8 inches possible from southeast North Dakota to central Iowa.”

In some places, including Des Moines, Iowa, snow will begin to fall Friday. “The duration of snowfall is likely to be from 14 to 20 hours in most locations which should allow for widespread accumulation of over 4 inches and some locations exceeding 8 or more inches,” said the National Weather Service in Des Moines.

Driving conditions will quickly become extremely dangerous for these areas, as the roads fill with snow.

“Visibility will also be greatly reduced within heavy snow bands with rates up to one inch per hour and during periods of gusty winds,” said the prediction center.

Winds in excess of 60 mph are possible through the High Plains as the cold front races through. The winds will cause any fresh snow to be blown around, reducing visibility, especially on the roads.

Another hit of winter for the mid-South

As the storm system quickly travels south, a wintry weekend will begin. Little Rock, Arkansas, Memphis, Tennessee, and even Jackson, Mississippi, could all see snow.

Memphis could be the big winner when it comes to snowfall for this region. It will start as rain and will change over to snow from west to east Saturday night and Sunday morning.

“At this point it is not the question on will it snow, but where the heavy snow bands set up and how much falls,” said the weather service office in Memphis. “Models remain inconsistent creating a tricky forecast regarding snow accumulations.”

While most areas in this region will most likely see 2 inches of snow or less, “There is the potential for a band of 6-8 inches of snow occurring somewhere in the vicinity of northeast Arkansas, the Missouri Bootheel, and west Tennessee,” said the weather service in Memphis.

Once the system gets into middle Tennessee and the Southeast, the uncertainty grows exponentially. As of Thursday morning, the forecast was pointing toward Nashville getting rain to start, then switching to snow Saturday night and into Sunday.

“Although we are unable to know exactly where that will set up and pivot, it is important to let the public and our partners across the region know some areas could have substantially more snow — greater than 6 inches,” said the weather service in Nashville.

There could be wide ranges in snowfall accumulations for middle Tennessee, and the forecast here may not be fine-tuned until just before the system arrives.

Will it be rain, ice or snow for the Southeast?

That same fine-tuning of the forecast also goes for Atlanta, where the “Snowpocalyopse” of 2014 is still fresh in people’s memory.

Regardless of previous scary past snowstorms for Atlanta, area residents are actually historically overdue for a good snow — or any snow for that matter. If Atlanta goes 21 more days without snow, it will be its longest snowless streak on record.

This system should bring winter weather to the region, but will it be enough to bring measurable snowfall to Atlanta?

With each model run, it’s looking less likely that there will be much accumulation inside the city, but the forecast is still changing. The models are still trying to come together and agree on what exactly is going to happen, but they are still disagreeing — making forecasting this storm more difficult.

While areas around Atlanta, especially the northern suburbs, will see all precipitation types, pinpointing exactly who will get what remains rather tricky.

The north Georgia mountains have the best chances for seeing the biggest snowfall totals, while areas closer to Atlanta could see more rain with a little snow mixed in. The uncertainty lies in where that cutoff line will be.

“Warmer temps towards the ATL metro will lend towards all rain with snow possibly mixing in at times,” said the weather service office in the city. “However, will have to monitor for light icing, especially in the eastern ATL `burbs.”

There could be a quick shot of snow for the Atlanta area on the backside of the system on Sunday, but it’s still too early to call.

“So, the main message is — get ready for winter weather and possible major travel impacts, but understand these winter storms are difficult to predict and change rapidly,” said the weather service in Nashville. “Even small changes in the strength and track can mean huge changes in real-world impacts.”

After the system bottoms out across the Deep South, it will bounce back to the north just as fast, riding a fine line with the I-95 corridor.

A crippling ice storm is forecast to develop

A major icing event could take shape across the Carolinas and Virginia, leaving millions without power and impossible travel conditions. Cities including Raleigh, North Carolina, could be in for more ice than previously expected.

“Over the last 72 hours, the westward trend of the surface low moving farther inland makes a widespread significant icing event appear more and more likely west of I-95,” the weather service office in Raleigh said.

This creates a whole other host of problems.

Wherever the freezing rain and sleet falls, there will be instant icing on the roads and bridges. Highways will become nearly impossible to navigate because of slick conditions.

What to pack in your car to be ready for winter weather

It’s important for motorists to pay close attention to this ever-changing forecast during the next few days, especially across the Carolinas, to see where the icing will happen and how much of it there will be.

We could also see quite a few power outages where the icing sets up — so make sure you are prepared to be without power.

Just half an inch of ice can add 500 pounds to a stretch of power line, and they can be compromised with less than that.

A hit of winter from the mid-Atlantic to New Engand

As the system travels north, toward the mid-Atlantic, icing becomes less of an issue and rain and snow become the two major players.

However, this still means travel nightmares for Washington, DC, and Baltimore on Sunday and Monday.

This comes right on the heels of the winter-related traffic jam just last week in Virginia that stranded some motorists in their cars for more than 24 hours.

For this region, the heaviest snowfall looks likely to be across interior sections of the mid-Atlantic, with mainly rain closer to the coast.

This doesn’t mean DC won’t see any snow, just that the heaviest snow will be farther inland. “We aren`t quite into the range for any snowfall amount forecasts just yet, so still a good bit of time for things to shift one way or the other,” said the weather service office in Baltimore/DC.

In the New York City area, the precipitation is forecast to begin Sunday afternoon. “For inland areas, there could be a quick dump of heavy snow, especially the farther north and west as one goes,” said the weather service in New York City.

Which areas will see mostly rain and which areas will see mostly snow will be determined by how closely the area of low pressure tracks to the coast. If the low tracks farther west, then most of the big cities will get a cold rain, while interior areas will see snow.

If the low tracks farther eastmore offshore, then we could see more accumulating snowfall for the big cities.

The highest snowfall totals will remain across interior New England.

Gusty winds will accompany the passing of the front, and there could be wind gusts of 35 mph around New York City on Monday afternoon.

Windy conditions will reach Boston as well, potentially creating minor coastal flooding. The forecast for the Northeast and New England will be fine-tuned in the days ahead. Any variation in the storm track will bring changes in the forecast.

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