Marylanders braced today for what is likely to be the biggest snowstorm of the season so far -- and the first snowfall in Baltimore in nearly two months.
Forecasters warned that Baltimore could see 4 to 8 inches of snow by early tomorrow from a classic nor'easter that was taking shape in the Deep South. As much as 10 inches could fall in parts of Southern Maryland.
The predictions drove shoppers to sweep snow shovels, de-icer, snack foods and toilet paper off store shelves.
"This is the first threat of a real snowstorm, and everybody's picking up everything," said manager Jessica Langston of the Home Depot in White Marsh, where more than 80 snowblowers sold Thursday and yesterday.
Warnings were issued yesterday for 4 inches to 8 inches of snow in Harford, Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties, plus all of Southern Maryland.
Behind today's storm, the weather service expects clearing skies but even colder, windier weather for several days. Highs will reach only the mid-30s tomorrow and Monday, with overnight lows in the teens.
The city's Code Blue shelter at 1400 E. Federal St. will be open through Monday night. By Wednesday, however, there should be above-normal temperatures again.
It was snowing yesterday afternoon in parts of Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee. As the storm developed, forecasters posted winter storm watches and warnings from northern Alabama to coastal Maine.
Accumulations of 8 inches to 12 inches were predicted along an axis of Interstate 95 that included Wilmington, Del., Philadelphia, Trenton, N.J., and New York.
It could get deeper. And noisier.
"With this type of explosive East Coast storm, it is also possible to get convection, or `thundersnow,' at the height of the storm," forecasters said in an advisory for the Philadelphia region. "If this occurs, snowfall rates could reach 2 to 3 inches an hour. This would cause total accumulations to exceed 12 inches."
Forecasters in New York were expecting 6 to 12 inches of snow. They issued a blizzard watch for coastal regions, including New York City and Long Island.
Blizzard conditions occur when winds exceed 35 mph, with enough falling or blowing snow to reduce visibility to less than a quarter-mile for at least three hours.
Nothing like that is expected here, but area residents were stocking up anyway, with enough staples to get them through next week.
"We're getting a lot of normal Saturday customers coming in today. They probably want to beat the storm," Bernie Riegel, manager of the Mars supermarket on Fort Smallwood Road in Pasadena, said yesterday.
Supplies were holding up for the moment, he said. "We're in pretty good shape. We just called one baking company to get more bread. We anticipated this [storm] and ordered extra milk and bread. ... But we're ordering extra again."
The storm's center was expected to move from this morning's location in Georgia, up the East Coast to Cape Cod by tomorrow. "That keeps Washington and Baltimore on the cold side of the storm, allowing for a mostly snow event," said Todd Miner, a meteorologist at Penn State Weather Communications.
Precipitation might begin as rain, then change to snow by afternoon. "The amount of rain would be almost not worth mentioning. ... It's looking like a snowstorm," Miner said.
To the north and west of the city, a "snow advisory" was posted for Carroll, Frederick and Washington counties, warning of 3 to 5 inches before the storm ends early tomorrow.
On the Eastern Shore, accumulations of several inches were possible, but likely limited by a changeover from snow to rain.
Surprises are possible if the storm tracks farther west and brings in more mild ocean air and rain, Miner said. An intrusion of dry air into the storm's center could also end the precipitation prematurely.
But the computer models say that's unlikely.
Even a 4-inch storm in Baltimore would qualify as the biggest of the season. The airport recorded a paltry 3.3 inches Dec. 5-6, and an even less impressive 2.2 inches Dec. 9.
Western Maryland has seen lots of snow this winter. But Baltimore has counted a mere 6.5 inches -- all in November (half an inch) and December (6 inches).
And, whatever snow the area gets from this storm will likely be gone by Wednesday or Thursday. Then, "it's going to be pretty mild, back to above-seasonal conditions, with some sunshine around," Miner said. "Beyond that, it's up for grabs."