A potentially significant ice storm is underway across the south-central United States and will spread northeast and affect parts of the Tennessee and Ohio Valleys by Monday afternoon. Multiple waves of freezing rain, which will deposit a dangerous glaze of ice on roadways, structures and vegetation, are expected through Wednesday, making for treacherous travel and potential power outages.
While some 15 million Americans are under winter storm and ice storm warnings, the hardest hit will be Texas, where up to two-thirds of an inch of ice buildup is likely to bring down power lines and tree limbs over the next 48 hours. Almost two years ago, freezing drizzle caused a 133-car pileup in Fort Worth that killed six people, and with a more widespread and significant ice storm looming this time, the effects could be serious.
“It doesn’t take much ice or melted sleet that refreezes at night to cause very slick and hazardous travel conditions … even on the more well-traveled roads, highways, and interstates,” the National Weather Service office in Fort Worth wrote Monday morning.
Ice storm warnings have been issued for Memphis and Little Rock, where the Weather Service is warning that “travel could be nearly impossible.” Across central Texas, including Dallas, Austin, Abilene and San Angelo, plus a portion of southeast Oklahoma, a winter storm warning is in effect.
And a 1,400-mile-long swath is under winter weather advisories because of the icy precipitation — though some locations could be upgraded to warnings, or downgraded, as the forecast becomes clearer. Cities under advisories as of 10 a.m. Eastern time Monday included Lubbock, Tex., Oklahoma City; Fort Smith and Fayetteville, Ark.; Springfield, Mo.; Nashville; Lexington, Ky.; and Charleston, W.Va.; along with another pocket from Decatur and Champaign, Ill., through Indianapolis to Cleveland and Youngstown, Ohio.
What is freezing rain?
Freezing rain is precipitation that falls as liquid rain but freezes on contact with a surface at or below 32 degrees.
It results from “overrunning,” or mild, moisture-rich air sliding atop a layer of subfreezing air near the ground. That allows rain to remain a liquid until it reaches the ground.
Freezing rain is distinctly different from sleet. Sleet occurs when liquid freezes into small ice pellets before hitting the ground.
Just a reminder, freezing rain falls as liquid and freezes on contact. Sleet, falls as pieces of ice and accumulates.— ʀʏᴀɴ ᴠᴀᴜɢʜᴀɴ (@ryanvaughan) January 29, 2023
Glazed Donut = Freezing Rain
Sprinkled Donut = Sleet
You might need this reminder by Tuesday morning . pic.twitter.com/QaI6DLyLOG
Freezing rain looks and sounds like ordinary rain — except it forms an invisible icy glaze. That’s what makes it so dangerous.
How to prepare
Many of the locations in line to experience significant ice accumulation are not accustomed to dealing with widespread hazardous winter weather. As such, travel is discouraged and will be perilous on untreated surfaces. Motorists should also be aware that bridges and overpasses tend to freeze first.
- Areas that see more than a half-inch of ice buildup will probably experience at least scattered power outages. Charging electronic devices ahead of time, especially in Texas, would be wise.
- Minimize or eliminate travel, particularly in areas forecast to deal with a quarter-inch or more of glaze. Chain-reaction crashes are very common during freezing rain events (more so than during any other type of weather).
- Before the freezing rain begins, inspect your property to ensure there are no tree limbs that, if they sag or droop under the weight of incoming ice, could cause property damage. Consider relocating your vehicles elsewhere in your driveway or yard so they’re not in danger of being hit by falling tree limbs.
- After the storm, avoid walking within 10 feet of skyscrapers, high-rise buildings or tall transmission towers. Melting chunks of ice can fall and cause injury.
Freezing drizzle was falling Monday morning across north-central Texas and southern Oklahoma. While freezing drizzle is often not apparent on radar, it’s especially dangerous. That’s because small droplets freeze faster on untreated surfaces.
Rain straddling a stalled front will expand in coverage and intensity while simultaneously working northeast Monday afternoon. That could be problematic along Interstate 35 in Texas and Oklahoma. By the evening, that first batch of freezing rain should slide into northern Arkansas, extreme southern Missouri, southwest Kentucky and western Tennessee.
Following a brief lull Tuesday morning, a second round will take shape in central Texas and spread northeast. Oklahoma City could see conditions deteriorate again midday Tuesday, with a probable hazardous afternoon commute in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. That stretch of freezing rain will span all the way to Nashville and Memphis by the overnight into Wednesday morning, while simultaneously lingering in the Lone Star State.
Conditions should improve from southwest to northeast on Thursday.
In northern and central Texas, including Dallas-Fort Worth, about a half-inch of ice, give or take, is likely through Wednesday night. Southern parts of the Panhandle, as well as areas closer to Austin, will see one-tenth to one-quarter of an inch.
For Oklahoma City, one-tenth of an inch is expected, with a quarter- to half-inch or so in most of Arkansas, western Tennessee and southwest Kentucky.
Understanding winter weather
Arctic high pressure parked across the central Plains is allowing an uninterrupted supply of frigid Canadian air to bleed south. That’s undercutting mildness and moisture wafting north near a stalled front, which at present stretches from southern Texas to northern Louisiana to the Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee.
If we take a “slice” through the front, the problem becomes evident — a zone of subfreezing air near the ground, with warm, moist air above. That’s a recipe for hazardous winter weather.
Because the front is stationary, waves of moisture will ride along it repeatedly like rail cars on a train track, allowing multiple rounds of freezing rain before the overarching pattern finally begins to break down.