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Treacherous snow and ice expected in eastern Carolinas, southeast Virginia into Saturday

Ice storm warnings are up for Wilmington, N.C., and Myrtle Beach, S.C., while a winter storm watch is in effect for Virginia Beach

A high-resolution model simulating freezing rain in the Carolinas. (WeatherBell)
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A dangerous winter storm is in the cards for eastern North and South Carolina and southeast Virginia, where freezing rain followed by a blitz of snow will bring major impacts at times late Thursday into early Saturday. Ice storm warnings are up along the coast in such cities as Wilmington, N.C., and Myrtle Beach, S.C., where up to a quarter-inch of glaze is expected.

The National Weather Service is warning that “ice accumulations will make traveling extremely hazardous if not impossible.” Power outages could be scattered to widespread, and the ice is likely to take a severe toll on vegetation.

Weather Service warned VDOT of heavy snow threat ahead of I-95 disaster

It’s the first ice storm warning the Weather Service office in Wilmington has issued since 2015. Farther north, winter storm warnings are in effect for eastern North Carolina, with winter weather advisories up for the coastal Tidewater region.

Southeast Virginia could experience a combination of ice and snow at times through Saturday morning. It’s under a winter weather advisory through Thursday night for a mix of icy precipitation and a winter storm watch Friday into Saturday for 4 to 6 inches of snow.

The setup

On Thursday morning, the first ingredient integral to Friday and Saturday’s winter storm — a cold front — was sliding through the Mid-Atlantic with less fanfare than originally anticipated. While a burst of moderate to heavy snow was predicted along the heavily traveled Interstate 95 corridor, only rain with a few wet flakes mixed in fell during the morning commute.

Though the front has been underwhelming, it will allow a wedge of cold, dense air to spill south and east. The front will eventually sag toward the Carolina coastline and stall for roughly 48 hours.

Around the same time, a developing offshore low-pressure system will tug a stream of mild, moisture-rich air northward. It will slide over the shallow layer of frigid, dense air near the surface in a process called “overrunning.” Precipitation will fall as liquid rain but immediately freeze on contact with the ground thanks to surface temperatures in the upper 20s. A simulated “sounding,” or vertical profile of the atmosphere, illustrates the setup quite well.

The timeline

Assuming ice and snow materialize as projected, light accumulations are likely over south-central and Southeast Virginia beginning in the mid- to late afternoon hours Thursday and continuing at night. Up to an inch of frozen precipitation could fall. Some light snow showers are possible in central North Carolina.

Precipitation will be confined mainly east of I-95 in North and South Carolina by the wee hours of Friday morning. Some sleet is possible on the back edge of the front in such cities as Wilson and Rocky Mount, N.C. That’s where cold air will be more deeply entrenched, allowing rain to freeze into ice pellets before hitting the ground.

Waves of moisture will ride along the front, which should be parked at the beaches by midday Friday. Temperatures will hover between 28 and 31 degrees. Light to moderate freezing rain is likely from the central coast of South Carolina through the Pamlico River in North Carolina east of Greenville.

Most of the impacts will be relegated to within 50 miles of the coast, though some of the colder pockets of eastern Georgia near Augusta could see a light glaze on Friday night. Freezing rain will continue past dark before clearing the coast before sunrise Saturday. The precipitation will probably end as a bit of snow in the North Carolina Coastal Plain.

Predicted snow and ice totals

A general quarter-inch to third of an inch of ice accretion is expected within one or two counties of the coast from a little north of Charleston, S.C., to north of Morehead City, N.C., mainly falling early Friday. Localized ice totals nearing half an inch, more than sufficient to bring down power lines and damage trees, are possible, too.

Farther inland, even Columbia, S.C., could see a light glaze, but any icing should remain east of Charlotte or Raleigh.

Most snow accumulation, on the order of 1 to 3 inches with a few isolated 4-inch amounts, would be relegated mainly to a narrow strip from northeast of Fayetteville, N.C., to Southeast Virginia, falling mostly Friday afternoon and night.

Some models paint a higher-end scenario with nearly half a foot of snow in Virginia Beach, but whether that occurs is predicated on how far north moisture expands. It’s worth noting that any snow that falls could hide existing ice, creating very slick conditions.

Thereafter, cold air will build into the Carolinas and linger through much of next week. Readings on Sunday could be more than 20 degrees below average.

Correction: A previous version of this story listed Myrtle Beach, N.C. The story has been corrected to Myrtle Beach, S.C.