Fierce winds, snow, freezing rain blast through the region

Fierce winds, snow, freezing rain blast through the region
SEATTLE -- A winter storm blasted through Western Washington Saturday night, bringing ferocious winds to the foothills and heavy snows across a wide area of the lowlands. Widespread freezing rain was falling in south Puget Sound.

Heavy snow and strong winds made whiteout conditions in the mountains, and the dangerous weather forced the DOT to shut down I-90 across Snoqualmie Pass late Saturday evening. The highway remained closed Sunday morning, and there is no estimate when it would reopen. Check this link for the latest conditions.

Blizzard conditions were reported in Enumclaw, where wind gusts as high as 70 mph are combining with snow to make for near whiteout conditions and heavy snow drifts. Over in the tiny foothill town of Cumberland, an unofficial gust of 100 mph was recorded, knocking a large tree over onto a main road that just missed the town's fire station. Snoqualmie reported a gust of 61 mph, Buckley hit 60 and North Bend had a gust of 57 mph.

The North Coast was also reporting blizzard conditions with wind gusts to 55 mph combining with heavy snow around Clallam Bay and Sekiu.

In the lowlands, heavy snow, ice and freezing rain were the main headaches.

Seattle streets were littered with spun out cars as the storm continued to dump snow on top of temperatures stuck in the 20s.

By Sunday morning, widespread freezing rain was falling in the south Puget Sound area, including Olympia, Shelton and Fort Lewis.

Along the coast, freezing rain was also becoming a problem as warmer air moved in. A spotter in Ocean Shores reported ice coatings as thick as 1/4" to 1/2".

Snow covered roads and treacherous driving conditions were reported across the region. By daybreak Sunday, snow depths were expected to reach several inches in many places.

Winds were expected to stay strong through the overnight hours, continuing to gust as high as 70-75 mph around the immediate Cascade foothills for town such as North Bend, Enumclaw, Buckley, Sultan, and Gold Bar, and then taper off toward dawn Sunday.

However the winds will funnel out into parts of the lowlands, where winds could gust into the 40-45 mph range, especially along the I-405 and SR 167 corridors south from Bellevue south. This area of strong winds include Woodinville, Redmond, Bellevue, Renton and Auburn.

But snow has become more of a concern for the eastern foothills, with now a Winter Storm Warning in effect there, for as much as 3-6" by midday Sunday.

Meanwhile, a BLIZZARD WARNING also remained in effect for the Cascades and northwestern tip of Washington where heavy snow was combining with gusty winds over 55 mph.

For most everyone else, it was snow. A WINTER STORM WARNING remained in effect for most of the Western Washington lowlands through Sunday morning for as much as 2-8" of snow -- with higher totals as high as 12" expected along the far western Kitsap Peninsula and Southwestern Washington.

But this storm's effects will be highly variable as winds interact with terrain.

Areas south of Olympia could see as much as 6-12" of snow with this storm before changing to rain or freezing rain. Ocean Shores already was reporting a dose of freezing rain with ice coatings as thick as 1/4 to 1/2". Tumwater was also reporting a change to freezing rain as of 10:30 p.m.

The greatest snow totals will be along the western Kitsap Peninsula/Hood Canal area and the Highway 101 corridor between Shelton and Quilcene along the eastern slopes of the Olympic Mountains. The strong east winds blowing out of the Cascades will run into the mountains, where the moisture will be wrung out in a heavy, relentless snow.

These areas could see 6-14" of snow, possibly even higher amounts in isolated spots. This is on top of the snow that's still on the ground over there. Even out toward Bremerton and Bainbridge Island, snow totals could be 6-8".

The Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue metro area in a transition zone between the not much snow to the east and massive totals out west. So snow totals will be highly variable. But we are still expecting 4-8" as a general rule across the metro area.

The north end, from Everett north to Bellingham, could see a decent amount of snow as well, but this is more uncertain as it'll depend on how much moisture makes it this far north. We'll put 3-6" as a potential total here. You might also see the snow linger longer on Sunday.

The Cascades and Olympics will also be hammered. A Blizzard Warning is in effect for all Cascade passes, where we're expecting 1-2 feet of snow from late Saturday through Sunday, combined with wind speeds up to 75 mph and wind chills ranging from 0 to -25 degrees. Travel is strongly discouraged and should be put off until Monday or be done early Saturday morning. It wouldn't surprise me to see the main passes shut down anyway.

Avalanche danger is also extremely high in the Cascades.

Then, The Warm Air Arrives

As I mentioned earlier, this storm is a warmer storm, so as we get through the event, late Saturday night and into Sunday, warmer air will begin to mix in and start scouring out the arctic air in place, changing the snow to perhaps a rain or sleet. However, with that frigid east wind blowing in from Eastern Washington, that could create some areas of still-freezing air near the ground -- a recipe for freezing rain.

That would be the icing on the cake (and everything else) to make this storm truly a headache, as that could cause a thick glaze of ice to form on just about everything, possibly knocking over trees and power lines due to the added weight of the ice.

Right now, freezing rain appears limited to the south coast, Southwestern Interior and perhaps as far north as Tacoma, with an outside chance of it getting into Seattle, with lesser ice the farther north you go.

This will depend on how fast and how much warm air makes it into this region, and it's a devil's choice as to which is better. A quicker transition means less snow but more freezing rain -- perhaps as much as 1/4" to 1/2" thick in the southwestern interior.

On the other hand, a slower changeover means less ice, but more snow.

It's looks fairly likely that areas from Everett north don't ever change over and just remain snow until it tapers off.

But the bottom line: This weekend could be messy and residents face multiple weather-related challenges. We'll of course, be monitoring the situation through the weekend as small changes in the storm's track and development could require big changes to the forecast.

Other areas:

If you're planning on trying to go south to Portland this weekend, you are facing similar dangerous conditions. Blizzard warnings are in effect from Saturday morning through early Monday morning in the western outflow area of the Columbia Gorge. 8-14" of snow is expected there amid winds howling to 40-50 mph.

In the main Portland/Vancouver metro area, a Winter Storm Warning is in effect from 10 a.m. Saturday through 1 p.m. Sunday for as much as 4-10 inches of snow, followed by a severe freezing rain/ice storm that could paralyze the city with frozen freeways and widespread power outages and cause significant delays at Portland's airport.

Eastern Washington will fare no better, where heavy snow will fall late Saturday through Sunday, dropping as much as 9-18" of new snow across the area.

Overall, travel across the entire Pacific Northwest will be incredibly difficult this weekend, and should be put off until Monday or Tuesday if possible.

Where do we go from here?

Forecasting models show whatever warming we get from this weekend's storm is very brief, with the jet stream quickly swinging back to a more northwesterly trajectory and bringing systems in from the cooler north (although not arctic cold -- we appear to be done with that after this weekend.)

A weak trough of low pressure will drop in Sunday night into early Monday, bringing a round of light showers to the region that could be rain or snow -- snow more likely up north. But showers will be light and no significant accumulations are expected.

Showers linger into early Monday, then it appears we'll be dry late Monday into Tuesday.

Another system comes in on Christmas Eve that will also feature low snow levels. How low is in question, but could be as low as 200-400 feet, meaning snow showers for some.

Christmas Day will also feature chilly showers that could be rain or snow.

But it does look like aside from maybe along the central coast, we'll have plenty of snow on the ground for Christmas, and no real prospects of a huge warm up that would melt it all away. After an 18 year wait for Seattle proper, it looks like it's finally time to have a White Christmas.