A high-impact ice storm is unfolding in the Carolinas, with up to a half-inch of slick glaze expected. The National Weather Service is warning of “locally devastating icing” that “will make travel dangerous or impossible” and will damage trees, trigger power outages and leave commerce “severely impacted.”
Farther north, winter storm warnings for plowable amounts of snow are in effect for about 5 million people in eastern North Carolina and southeastern Virginia. The warning area includes Raleigh, Rocky Mount, Greenville, Fayetteville and the Outer Banks in North Carolina and much of the Hampton Roads area of southeastern Virginia.
Some areas may flirt with a half-foot when all is said and done, some of it falling atop a fresh sheet of ice. The bulk of the snow is anticipated to fall between Friday afternoon and early Saturday.
The winter storm warnings are flanked by winter weather advisories for lesser amounts of frozen precipitation to the west and south, and they include Columbia, S.C., Charleston and the north side of Savannah, Ga.
The ice threat
On Friday morning, rain was falling in the Carolina Coastal Plain, but forecasters are anticipating a speedy changeover to ice as colder air filters into the region.
“We’re getting rain, but it’s just not quite cold enough yet,” said Reid Hawkins, science and operations officer at the National Weather Service in Wilmington. “We did think it was going to be earlier, so we hope that people don’t get a false [sense of security].”
The overarching setup was characterized by “overrunning,” or mild, moisture-rich air surging up and over a lip of cold, dense air hugging the ground. That allows liquid precipitation to fall but freeze on contact with the surface.
Freezing precipitation will fall within about one or two counties of the coast from northeast of Charleston, S.C., to near the Pamlico River east of Greenville, N.C. The icing should taper down after midnight, but forecasters expect a widespread 0.2 to 0.4 inches of accumulation, with localized half-inch amounts.
“We get something like this, I think, about every seven, eight years,” said Hawkins, who emphasized the magnitude of the event. “We had one in 2018 here, but the last really big one that was really devastating was 2014 here about 40, 50 miles just [inland] off the coast. It knocked out power for several weeks back then.”
It takes only about a half-inch of ice to pull down power lines and topple trees. The Highway 17 span appears in line to be the hardest hit, with scattered to widespread power outages probable.
“Especially from just west of Wilmington northeastward near the coast of the Outer Banks, that looks like where the most significant area we’re expecting the freezing rain to be impacting,” said Hawkins.
Fortunately, many residents appear to be taking the threat seriously.
“I could see this morning coming in, there was less traffic,” he recalled. “Lots of places have closed schools and done remote learning today. I would imagine people do know a little bit more about it, but there will still be folks who think their four-wheel-drives will work on the ice. We are the South, after all.”
A strip of moderate to heavy snow will come down on the back side of the system from north-central South Carolina to southeastern Virginia beginning Friday evening and lasting into early Saturday. A wave of moisture sliding along the stalled front will provide ample support for snowfall rates in the half-inch-per-hour range, meaning overnight totals could stack up to a widespread 2 to 5 inches, with a few spots in eastern areas approaching six inches.
The snow will stretch from northeastern Georgia near Augusta through central parts of the Carolinas, including the cities of Columbia and Raleigh-Durham, and possibly Charlotte. Southeastern Virginia near the Tidewater will also be affected, with the heftiest totals likely near Virginia Beach.
The snow is expected to remain well south of the Washington-Baltimore region, although some light snow or flurries could sneak as far north as southern Maryland, the southern Delmarva Peninsula and Virginia’s Northern Neck. Winter weather advisories for up to two inches of snow extend as far northeast as Ocean City, Md.
In parts of the Carolinas, the snow will come down atop a layer of ice and sleet, concealing the treacherous, surreptitiously slick surface. The snow should exit the coast around sunrise Saturday, but flurries could linger around the Outer Banks through noon.
Thereafter, a gradual warming trend will emerge into early next week, with melting — slow but steady — expected through the remainder of the weekend.
Jason Samenow contributed to this report.