February 11, 2021

We're Coming Up On This Winter's Roughest Stretch Of Cold And Snow

The next five days will see the roughest stretch of winter weather the United States has seen in quite a few years. Bitter cold will grip the center of the country while snow and ice fall on the Pacific Northwest, the southern Plains, and the Mid-Atlantic. The southern Plains could see some hefty snowfall next week if the forecasts pan out.

First thing's first, though, since I've seen (and experienced) some confusion about this. Winter storms aren't named in the United States. There's no such thing as Winter Storm Quavo/Boppo/Filbert or whatever you've hear on television or social media. The Weather Channel unilaterally names winter storms for the purposes of its coverage. The system is deeply flawed for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it doesn't work when hardly anyone else recognizes the names. Since the names are arbitrary, the DAMWeather Winter Storm Naming And Hot Wing Quality Assurance Committee voted 1-0 to name all of this year's winter storms Skittlebip.

There are plenty of Winters Storm Skittlebip rolling across the country this week. So many areas are at risk of disruptive snow and ice (and bitter cold) that it's best to break the threat down into three sectors: Pacific Northwest, the southern Plains, and the Mid-Atlantic. 

Since my computer has a case of the Mondays on this rainy Thursday afternoon, I'm not able to make a map of the National Weather Service's snowfall forecasts today. The snowfall graphic I usually compile and upload (like this) combines all 100+ snow forecasts issued by individual NWS forecast offices.

Given the issues I've had today, above is a hastily thrown together and ridiculously busy map highlighting the threats over the next couple of days.

This map combines the Weather Prediction Center's 50th percentile forecasts for snow and ice through Sunday evening. Some areas will see higher or lower snow and freezing rain totals than what's shown above, but this gives you a good rough idea of who could see significant snows or ice accretion from freezing rain over the next three days.

Pacific Northwest

Source: NWS Seattle

There's a pretty good chance of snow and ice along the I-5 corridor in Washington and Oregon through Saturday. If everything stays on track according to the forecast, the region is looking at a disruptive snowstorm over the next couple of days.

Seattle averages about 5 inches of snow in a normal winter, while Portland typically sees about 7 inches of snow each year. But those snowstorms aren't a sure thing each year—Seattle received hardly any snow last season, but saw 20 inches of snow the previous winter.

Through this weekend, Seattle could wind up with up to half a foot of snow by the time the storm is over, with higher amounts at higher elevations. Covered roads, cancelled flights, and delayed trains will make it difficult to get around the region for a couple of days. 

Farther south along the interstate, southwestern Washington and northwestern Oregon will see a mixture of both snow and freezing rain. It's going to be a mess. Here's NWS Portland's helpful graphics highlighting the threat for wintry precipitation over the next couple of days.


Source: NWS Portland

And the threat for ice from freezing rain:

Source: NWS Portland

The greatest ice accretion is possible in the mountains between Tillamook and Portland, where one-quarter of an inch of ice or more could bring down tree limbs and power lines. Freezing rain is possible in the Portland metro area as well, which is expected to see a couple of inches of snow right now. Any ice mixed in with snow makes it even more difficult to deal with.

Freezing rain is an ugly threat. It only takes a tiny amount of freezing rain to leave a glaze of ice on exposed surfaces, making it nearly impossible to drive safely—or even walk down the driveway. The threat of heavy snow and freezing rain in such heavily forested areas heightens the concern. If you live in an area expecting freezing rain, make sure you stay away from rooms in your house where large trees or tree limbs could fall through the roof or walls if they snap under the weight of the snow or ice.

Extreme Cold & Southern Plains Snow

Last week's cold didn't just stick around—it's getting worse. The heart of the much-maligned polar vortex will dip over the Upper Midwest early next week, sending subfreezing temperatures dipping as far south as the Gulf of Mexico. Tuesday looks like it's going to be the coldest day for the most people.

Low temperatures on Tuesday morning will dip below zero in northern Texas, with single digits likely in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Lows in the teens are possible as far south as Houston and San Antonio. Temperatures this cold diving this deep into the southern Plains will easily break daily record lows. Some areas could come within a few degrees of their all-time record low temperatures.

The all-time lowest temperature on record in Dallas is -1°F at KDFW in December 1989 and 0°F at KDAL in January 1940. The all-time record low in Houston was 5°F at KHOU and 7°F at KIAH, both also set during those two cold snaps in 1940 and 1989. While it seems unlikely these two cities will see all-time lows, one of their top-ten coldest mornings on record is certainly possible.

It's going to be even colder up north, with subzero temperatures firmly gripping Oklahoma and temperatures in the double-digits below zero the norm from Kansas northward. Folks on the northern Plains and Upper Midwest just can't catch a break from this stretch of cold weather. Minneapolis has recorded highs in the single digits and lows below zero every day since last Saturday. It'll get even worse, with forecasts showing the city dipping below zero this evening and likely not seeing readings above zero again until early next week. 

Wind chill values will come in even colder than the actual air temperature. The wind chill is what it feels like to exposed skin when you factor in the cold air and gusty winds. Higher winds efficiently presses cold air right up against exposed skin, which allows frostbite and hypothermia to set in faster when it's windy than when it's calm. It doesn't take very long for the cold air to take its toll when wind chills fall below zero.

If everything goes according to forecast, a developing winter storm will meet that cold air over the southern Plains and bring the region a hefty dose of snow and ice. It's still too early to talk about specifics, but the potential is there for a high-end and disruptive amount of snow and ice from freezing rain beginning on Sunday and lasting through Monday. Winter storm watches are already in effect in central Oklahoma and northern Texas to make people well aware of the event. 


Source: NWS EDD

The ongoing slog of rain moving across the Mid-Atlantic will pose problems in the overnight hours on Friday morning and Saturday morning as temperatures close in on the freezing mark. Lots of areas will hover right around 32°F, leaving some areas with ice-glazed roads and other areas just wet. This kind of borderline setup can lead to serious traffic accidents.

Greater ice accumulations are possible from the Piedmont Triad to the southern D.C. suburbs during a steady period of freezing rain on Saturday. Winter storm watches are in effect for parts of northern Virginia, with more alerts possible farther southwest as we get closer to the event. Some areas could see one-quarter of an inch of ice or more, which makes tree damage and power outages possible.

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I graduated from the University of South Alabama in 2014 with a degree in political science and a minor in meteorology. I contribute to The Weather Network as a digital writer, and I've written for Forbes, the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang, Popular Science, Mental Floss, and Gawker's The Vane. My latest book, The Skies Above, is now available. My first book, The Extreme Weather Survival Manual, arrived in October 2015.