By Allison Chinchar, CNN Meteorologist
It’s been nearly seven years since the National Weather Service office in Wilmington, North Carolina, issued an ice warning for its area. Now, more than 10 million people along coastal parts of Virginia and the Carolinas are under winter weather alerts.
Ice storm warnings on Thursday include Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and Wilmington, where up to a half inch of ice could bring down trees and power lines and cause dangerous road conditions.
The governors of North and South Carolina and Virginia have issued states of emergency in preparation for the winter weather.
“It all starts first with the cold front that’s going to move through the Carolinas during the daytime” Thursday, said Nick Petro, warning coordination meteorologist at the weather service office in Raleigh, North Carolina.
That cold front and low pressure system will usher in precipitation and a very cold air mass behind the front — cold enough to bring winter weather elements Thursday night through Saturday. The low pressure system’s location — whether offshore or closer to the coast — will determine how much rain, snow and ice these areas see.
“If it’s too far offshore, you literally could have nothing,” Petro told CNN Weather. “But if it stays close to the shore, then we could have a wintry mix of snow, some sleet, maybe some freezing rain closer to the coast.”
Eastern North Carolina and South Carolina are likely to see widespread freezing rain late Thursday into Friday. On Saturday, conditions could shift to sleet and snow.
“Our best forecast is that areas away from the immediate coast and beaches will see a quarter of an inch, maybe as much as four-10ths of an inch of ice, lower amounts near the coast and maybe some lower amounts where some sleet and snow will mix in along our I-95 corridor counties,” said Mark Bacon, meteorologist at the Wilmington weather service office.
A little farther north in Virginia, temperatures will be just cool enough that most precipitation will be in the form of snow.
From Raleigh up through Virginia Beach and Norfolk, 2 to 4 inches of snow are forecast.
Travel and power outage concerns
When it comes to ice, travel and power outages remain the most significant concerns.
In coastal South Carolina and Georgia, where freezing conditions are “fairly rare,” icing will be the main challenge, said Steven Taylor, lead forecaster with Charleston, South Carolina, weather office.
“Any type of icing is significant for us, but we have a lot of elevated bridges and roadways across, especially the Charleston and Savannah metro areas. So, any type of icing that could occur will certainly be a problem for travelers.”
Another concern is what happens after the storm passes. By Saturday night, temperatures are expected to drop into the 20s across much of the Carolinas, making for dangerous conditions if customers lose power.
“Most deaths occur after an ice storm,” Bacon said.
“People succumb to carbon monoxide poisoning when they’re using heaters that aren’t rated for the indoors,” he said, adding that people should avoid any unnecessary travel from Friday through Saturday morning, when the storm will be at its worst.
And if you do run a generator, Taylor emphasized, make sure it is in a well-ventilated space.
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CNN meteorologist Tom Sater and Paradise Afshar contributed to this story.