The much-anticipated major snowstorm that prompted a statewide declaration of emergency by Gov. Deval Patrick was off to a slow start in much of Berkshire County on Friday afternoon. Most schools had closed early, a few for the entire day, and some businesses, city and town offices, museums and other gathering places altered their schedules.
Light to moderate snow was falling over most of the region by mid-afternoon, with the heaviest snowfall reported in the southeastern portion of the county, where up to 4 inches was on the ground.
The heaviest snowfall is expected between 6 p.m. and midnight on Friday, winding down gradually overnight before ending on Saturday morning.
Snow accumulation predictions run the gamut.
According to the National Weather Service forecasters, 12 to 18 inches of total snowfall remains the prediction for Berkshire County.
AccuWeather.com was anticipating 9 inches.
The Weather Channel, which has dubbed the storm "Nemo" in keeping with its practice of naming intense winter weather systems, was holding to its 10- to 15-inch range for the area.
But the NWS meteorologists maintained that a band of moderate to locally heavy snowfall was still in the cards for much of the region, though it was unclear how long it would continue. The best estimates pointed to nearly an inch an hour of snow after sunset, with more to the southeast.
The severe snowstorm due to clobber the Berkshires, the rest of New England and eastern New York state from Friday morning until midday Saturday is on track to deliver a crippling blow to travel and work routines, with many early shutdowns expected, including half-days or full cancellations of school days.
Upping the ante for the coastal storm, a nor'easter taking shape off the Carolinas and fed by abundant moisture from its origins in the Gulf of Mexico, the National Weather Service hoisted a winter storm warning in effect from 6 a.m. Friday until noon Saturday. The government forecasters in Albany, N.Y., predict total snowfall of 12 to 18 inches in Berkshire County, except for the hilly, rural southeastern portion - towns like Otis, Monterey, Becket and Sandisfield - that could see 18 to 24 inches.
During the height of the storm Friday night and early Saturday morning, snow could fall at the rate of as much as three inches per hour at times. That means highway department crews, even with all hands on deck, will be hard-pressed to clear the roads and keep traffic moving, especially between sunset Friday and dawn on Saturday.
The timing of the storm's onset, crucial to school superintendents and business managers, has been pinpointed to Friday morning, with steadier, heavier snowfall by dusk.
NWS Albany office forecaster Brian Frugis pointed out that the storm will "bomb out" with explosive force off the Jersey shore Friday evening. The snowfall is likely to wind down after sunrise on Saturday.
"The biggest question is how much total snow will occur," he cautioned, citing somewhat differing scenarios projected among the half-dozen U.S., Canadian British and European computer models used by forecasters.
"Snow-covered roads and reduced visibility, frequently below one mile, will make for dangerous travel," according to the government forecaster's winter storm warning first posted on Thursday afternoon.
Northeast winds gusting up to 30 mph will make travel very hazardous or impossible.
The potentially historic snowstorm could produce hurricane-force winds and major coastal flooding from the Connecticut shore through Massachusetts, Rhode Island and into southern Maine, according to NWS national forecasters based in College Park, Md. The result: A dangerous blizzard for southeastern New England.
Blizzard conditions were expected in the Boston area westward to the Pioneer Valley as well as in all of Connecticut, including nearby Litchfield County. Travel in much of the region is likely to be virtually impossible, according to AccuWeather.com forecasters, who warn of gale-force winds whipping the snow into deep drifts and creating whiteouts on major highways as well as secondary roads.
At the National Weather Service in Taunton, near Boston, forecaster Benjamin Sipprell described the oncoming storm as "posing threats to life and property." The NWS issued rare, official blizzard warnings for eastern and southeastern Massachusetts, all of Connecticut, and Rhode Island, with storms totals that could jump into the top 10 heaviest snowfalls for Boston, Worcester, Hartford, Providence and other cities. The region could see 2 to 3 feet of snow, with drifts up to 5 feet caused by blowing and drifting.
The jackpot for Boston, 27.5 inches, fell on Feb. 17-18, 2003, followed closely by the Blizzard of '78, which topped out at 27.1 inches on Feb. 6-7 of that year.
At Pittsfield Municipal Airport, the heaviest single-storm snowfall on record - 32 inches - fell on Jan. 8-9, 1996.
To contact Clarence Fanto: email@example.com or (413) 637-2551. On Twitter: @BE_cfanto.