LITTLE ROCK Up to a foot of snow is forecast to fall in Little Rock through Tuesday morning in what could become one of the most significant daily snowfall totals in state history.
The system, which was originally expected to start out as rain before developing into a much smaller snow event tonight, has already coated roadways in slick conditions, snarled traffic, canceled schools, delayed flights, knocked out power and generally turned the area into a wintry mess.
And it's going to get worse.
"There's not truly a technical term for this, but we've said it's pouring down snow," National Weather Service meteorologist Dan Koch said. "It seems like it's coming down in buckets."
The conditions prompted Central Arkansas Transit Authority to suspend service for the day. Passengers who need a ride home are asked to call 375-6717 or email their location to email@example.com.
The heaviest band of snowfall is situated above a part of the state bounded by Little Rock, Russellville, Jonesboro and West Memphis. That large swath of the state will see 8 inches to a foot of snow by early Tuesday morning, when the precipitation will taper off.
Points north, east and west of the heavy band of snowfall will see totals between 4 and 8 inches, Koch said. Lesser totals are expected farther south.
The heavy snowfall is only one side of the story, however. Temperatures tonight will fall into the 20s, refreezing the slush on many streets into an even slicker surface.
"It's going to make travel pretty miserable," Koch said. "It already has this morning and it's still coming down. And there's no signs of letting up anytime soon."
If Little Rock sees a foot of snow, it would make this about the third largest 24-hour snow event. It would also put this storm within striking distance of the 117-year-old all-time record: the 13 inches reported in a single day in central Arkansas in January 1893.
"Theoretically, we could be getting fairly close," Koch said. "It just depends on how long this storm is drawn out."
So how did a system that was supposed to cause minimal problems turn into a potentially record-breaking weather event?
Koch said it boils down to forecasters being off by just a couple degrees. They thought it would be a little warmer, but cold air moved in faster than anticipated. So what seemed like rain turned frozen in a hurry.
"In the summer, if we forecast 85 and it's 87 no one really notices," Koch said. "But when you're right around 32 and you're off a degree or two, it can make a huge difference. Case in point, yesterday, a lot of our forecasters thought it'd be a little bit warmer and this would all be falling as a rain-and-snow mix."
But it was virtually all snow - or sleet - and problems have been mounting ever since.
An Arkansas Department of Highways and Transportation online map shows many highways from Arkadelphia and Pine Bluff north as either snow or slush-covered.
Randy Ort, a spokesman for the department, said traffic is moving slower than usual but no highways have closed completely. Wrecks have generally been cleared pretty quickly, allowing for roughly 700 state highway trucks to continue spreading salt-and-sand or plowing away snow.
He said it will become increasingly important that motorists stay off the roads as the temperatures dip.
"We can't dry the roads," Ort said. "We try to move the majority of material off the roadways. But any moisture left over very well could refreeze."
Bill Sadler, a spokesman for the state police, said troopers were working numerous slideoffs and weather-related collisions throughout the state.
"If you drew a horizontal line at Pine Bluff and worked your way north, we're seeing problems all across the area," he said, adding it was too soon to know any total accident numbers or if any serious injuries had occurred.
Several accidents have been reported, including a tractor trailer that overturned on Interstate 440. Several streets at Cantrell and Reservoir Road have been shut down.
Numerous motorists along Capitol Avenue in Downtown Little Rock this afternoon spun out and found their vehicles stuck in several inches of snow coating the streets.
Yellow Cab driver Howard Watson said he drove through slick, icy conditions since starting his shift about 2:30 a.m. The company has been inundated with calls from people needing rides, he said during a morning stop at the Exxon gas station at Broadway Street and Interstate 30 in North Little Rock.
"We can't even get to them there's so many of them," he said. "I just tell them I can't pull any hills ... It's a drivable snow, though."
Other drivers who pulled into the station said the snow was a surprise but not a major problem.
Stephen Combs, who called the precipitation "snowball weather," said getting around boils down to taking it slow. He said this pales in comparison to other storms he's seen.
"I'm from Nebraska anyway, so we're used to snowy weather like this here," he said. "As a matter of fact, we have blizzards."
Numerous schools in the region - including Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County - have canceled classes. Follow all the closings at arkansasonline.com/closings.
Entergy, meanwhile, was reporting 128 power failures affecting more than 12,700 customers as of 1:45 p.m.
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