Abandoned vehicles line an exit ramp along I-75 South during the winter storm January 29, 2014 in Atlanta. Drivers and kids on school buses were stuck in their vehicles overnight. Image Credit: Daniel Shirey/Getty Images

 
A significant winter storm will stun parts of the southeastern United States overnight on Friday, January 6, greeting the first full weekend of the new year with a crust of snow from the fields of Alabama to the beaches of Virginia. The storm could produce amounts of snow this region only sees once or twice a decade, potentially snarling traffic and leading to widespread business closings. And as if the snow isn’t bad enough, a bitter cold snap will follow soon after and make post-storm cleanup even more challenging.

The snow and ice will start on Friday afternoon as a low-pressure system comes together at the surface due to a strong jet stream streaking overhead from west to east. Winds swirling around the low will help drag Arctic air as far south as the Gulf of Mexico, ensuring that most of the precipitation that falls across the south on Friday and Saturday falls in the form of snow, sleet, or freezing rain.

Folks in Alabama and Georgia can expect the wintry precipitation to begin before sundown on Friday and last through the nighttime hours. The heaviest snow and ice will reach the Carolinas and Virginia after sunset on Friday and last through Saturday morning, ending from west to east as the storm trudges out to sea.

The Weather Prediction Center’s snowfall forecast from the morning of January 6, 2017, through the morning of January 9. Image Credit: Dennis Mersereau

 
Meteorologists expect this storm to be a nuisance in Alabama and Georgia and a genuine thumping as you head farther north along the coast. Central Alabama can expect a general dusting of snow with localized higher amounts, while a couple of inches of snow are likely across adjacent parts of Georgia. Atlanta is understandably jittery about even a small blanket of the white stuff given how frozen precipitation has paralyzed the city in recent years. Small amounts of snow can readily freeze into a sheet of ice on heavily trafficked roads, bringing vehicles to a standstill and stranding commuters for many hours before help arrives.

The heaviest snow is expected to fall along a stretch of land that extends from about Charlotte, North Carolina, through Norfolk, Virginia. This is where forecasters expect the greatest mixture of cold air, deep moisture, and upward lift to generate hours of steady—and at times heavy—snowfall. Close to 6 inches of snow are possible in many of these locations, with some totals closer to 1 foot possible between Raleigh, North Carolina, and the Virginia beaches.

A sloppy mixture of snow, ice, and plain old rain is possible closer to the coast where temperatures will be warmer. A thin glaze of ice is possible from central Alabama through eastern parts of the Carolinas by the end of the storm. Even though ice accretions are expected to measure just a few hundredths of an inch, any coating of ice will make roads and sidewalks slick and potentially impassable.

The National Weather Service’s forecast low temperatures, in degrees Fahrenheit, for the morning of Monday, January 9, 2016. Image Credit: NWS EDD

 
The hazards don’t end with the snow. Temperatures for several days after the skies clear out will be brutally cold compared to normal, approaching record territory in some spots. Low temperatures on Sunday night will likely reach the single digits as far south as Charlotte, North Carolina, with some communities pushing zero degrees before sunrise. Temperatures will likely remain below freezing from Friday night until Tuesday afternoon across areas where the thickest blanket of snow falls, complicating cleanup efforts and making rush hour on Monday and Tuesday a dicey bet. Snow that isn’t removed from roads and sidewalks soon after it falls risks freezing into thick layers of solid ice as the sun melts it and subfreezing temperatures refreeze the meltwater.

The South’s inability to cope with even the tiniest snowfall is a running joke in the rest of the country, but this typically mild region just isn’t equipped to deal with significant amounts of winter weather. Many factors play into this unique problem, including inadequate infrastructure and the simple fact that people just aren’t used to winter driving. The saving grace with this storm should be that the bulk of the hazardous weather will occur overnight on a weekend, minimizing traffic congestion and disruption to everyday life.

This storm has been well-advertised since the beginning of this week, and stores started running out of bread and milk as soon as Wednesday afternoon. People certainly know it’s coming. Still, this storm could cause unexpected disruptions where the forecast doesn’t hit the mark. Exact snow and ice accumulations depend on the track that this storm takes. A tiny shift to the north or south in the storm’s track could result in the bands of heaviest snow setting up farther north or south of where forecasters and models think it’ll set up right now. A track error of just 25 miles could mean that towns expecting a light snowfall could get slammed while cities expecting to spend an afternoon shoveling might get lucky and not see much at all. As with everything in life, prepare for the worst but hope for the best.