Christmas travel outlook: Icy, dangerous conditions may unfold in central, northeastern US

By Alex Sosnowski, AccuWeather senior meteorologist
December 17, 2017, 1:23:34 AM EST

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There is the potential for a 2,200-mile-long stretch of unsettled weather and travel disruptions to set up in the central to eastern United States in the days surrounding Christmas.

"There are signs of a bad holiday season for traveling by car or air from the Rockies to parts of Plains, Midwest and Northeast during this period," according to AccuWeather Lead Long-Range Meteorologist Paul Pastelok.

Weather-related airline delays may develop on multiple occasions stemming from several major airport hubs. Motorists may face wintry road conditions along vast stretches of interstate highways.

Where will the storms track?

Following two surges of milder air in the Midwest and Northeast during the week before Christmas, a temperature contrast zone will set up from the southern Plains to New England.

Much colder air will settle southward across the Rockies, Plains and Midwest later this week. Meanwhile, warmth will hold and may even build in the Southeastern states.

Static Long Range Near Christmas

Storms will move from southwest to northeast along the temperature battle line.

How cold the air becomes in the swath from Texas to Missouri and Maine will determine the extent of frozen versus liquid precipitation.

As many as a half a dozen storms of varying intensity may be ejected during the period from the Southwest states from Dec. 22 to Jan. 2.

Exactly how far to the northwest or southeast freezing air will settle each day will depend on the track of each storm.

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As each storm moves northeastward, some colder air will seep southward and could pave the way for some snow and/or ice from the next storm, where the preceding storm may have delivered only rain.

Should a shallow layer of cold air develop close to the ground, as opposed to a thick layer of cold air through the atmosphere, ice may be the primary form of precipitation in an extensive swath during one or multiple rounds.

The exact location of wintry weather will become more clear later in the week just ahead of the first storms.

Travel conditions likely to deteriorate during the weekend before Christmas

Much to the delight of skiers, snow will gather over the central and southern Rockies late this week and during the weekend before Christmas. Around the same time, rain will gather over the area from the southern Plains to the Tennessee Valley.

Christmas Dec 16

This batch of moisture will then stream northeastward closer to Christmas.

"At this time, we think that rain is most likely for much of the mid-Atlantic to southern New England with the storm(s) spanning Dec. 24 to 28," Pastelok said. "However, as cold air sinks southward, some snow and ice are likely from parts of northern New England to the Ohio Valley and southern Plains."

Pacific coast to endure weather-related travel troubles

From the weekend before Christmas to New Year's Day, most storms will occur well inland of the Pacific coast states.

However, one or two storms may track into the West Coast during the holidays. The strongest and most disruptive of these may occur toward the end of 2017.

That storm has the potential to bring the most significant rainfall in months to Southern California. Snow will fall over the passes from Washington to Northern California.

There will be opportunities for safe travel in between the storms.

Gusty winds may also cause travel disruptions over the mountains in the Southwest.

Ongoing trouble is likely for firefighters due to rounds of gusty winds ahead of any end-of-the-year rain.

"As we may see later this week, a storm that drops into the Rockies can still kick up strong winds across California and significantly heighten the fire danger," AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Kristina Pydynowski said.

AccuWeather will continue to provide updates on areas of snow, ice, rain and travel conditions through the holidays.

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