The first winter storm of the season, and the latest snow debut on record, is expected to drop 4 to 6 inches of snow and sleet early Tuesday morning in the northern and central Berkshires above the Mass Pike.
"Better to be fashionably late than not arrive at all," said Brian Montgomery, meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Albany, N.Y., agreeing that the "springtime in December" party is definitely over.
In South Berkshire, only 1 to 3 inches of snow and sleet is likely before the entire county sees a few hours of sleet and freezing rain between sunrise and late morning, Montgomery said.
The computer models used by the government forecasters are showing cold air "locked in a bit longer than we expected earlier," he said. "The storm won't have a dramatic, huge impact but it is the first measurable snow of the season."
Because of the impending storm, the city of Pittsfield declared a snow emergency from 11 p.m. Monday until 7 a.m. Wednesday, triggering parking restrictions and sidewalk snow-clearing requirements.
Motorists will face a challenging ride to work with potentially hazardous conditions until temperatures rise above freezing by noon, with a brief period of rain or drizzle before the storm from the Midwest heads into the maritime provinces of Canada later on Tuesday.
The snow was projected to begin around midnight in the Berkshires, with the transition to a wintry mix of sleet and freezing rain after sunrise. Northern portions of the county could see up to a quarter-inch of ice on top of the snow, with considerably less in south Berkshire. By afternoon, temperatures should top out around 37 or 38, melting much of any snow or ice accumulation.
Assuming the forecast works out, the region will set a new record for the latest arrival of the season's first snowfall. The previous record was Dec. 24, 1912.
The predicted snowfall was music to the ears of frustrated winter sports enthusiasts and especially to ski area operators since the Christmas to New Year's period yields about 20 percent of season revenues.
The economic hit to the region's ski industry, hotels and restaurants has been severe, said Tyler Fairbank, president of Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort in Hancock.
But the area's "Snowmaggedon" system of laying down a thick blanket of white went into overdrive starting at 2 a.m. Monday.
Jiminy will reopen at 9 a.m. Tuesday with three lifts serving nine trails, said marketing director Katie Fogel. Schedules for the rest of the week and next weekend will be updated on www.jiminypeak.com.
"This has been absolutely the worst start to a ski season," Fairbank said. "We have a multimillion dollar hole to dig our way out of."
He and his father, Brian, co-founder of Jiminy and chairman of the Fairbank Group, had been on the front lines of the massive snowmaking operation all morning. "My father is 69 and is still absolutely passionate about snowmaking and is as smart about it as anyone in the industry," Tyler Fairbank said.
Noting that Jiminy has had only minimal work for its 1,000 employees, most of them seasonal, he emphasized that ski areas throughout the Northeast — including the Fairbank Group's Bromley Mountain in southern Vermont and Cranmore in North Conway, N.H. — have suffered economically.
"This has been a huge hit to the industry," Fairbank said. "But winter is going to happen and it will be a longer, lingering finish." Long-range forecasters used by Jiminy are predicting a "very wintry 90 days ahead," he added.
"We're taking full advantage of our super-powerful snowmaking plant to get snow on the slopes," Fairbank said. "In this business, you have to take the long view and plan accordingly. This has hurt but it comes with the territory and we'll be doing everything we can over the balance of the year to put more skiers on the mountain and get out of the business hole."
At Ski Butternut in Great Barrington, general manager Dick McCann announced plans to reopen either this Saturday or Sunday, based on a "very promising" forecast for temperatures cold enough to activate snowmaking.
"We will be in better shape on Sunday due to the additional snowmaking opportunity that Saturday night provides," McCann stated in an e-mail message. His plan is to open four beginners trails, two intermediate slopes and two for advanced skiers, as well as the tubing center.
The family ski area plans to operate its Tri-State and Inter Club race programs and the Park program this weekend. All other weekend programs are slated to return on the weekend of Jan. 9-10, including the Adult Race, Upper Level Development & Relaxed Learning, Explorers, Development Team, and the Saturday Program for Adults & Kids.
Bousquet Ski Area in Pittsfield was set to begin snowmaking on Monday night, but will not announce plans for an opening date until Wednesday at the earliest. Otis Ridge also remains closed but is starting its snow guns and could reopen on Thursday or this weekend, depending on the impact of the Tuesday storm.
The season's first snowfall, if enough falls to be plowable, also would be a boon for snow-removal contractors who have been deprived of early-season income so far. In an average season, the Berkshires would have seen 23 inches by now.
High temperature marks were shattered with a Christmas Eve high of 67 at Pittsfield Municipal Airport and 70 at Harriman and West Airport in North Adams. Christmas Day also saw historic warmth in both cities, with 61 in Pittsfield and 59 in North Adams.
Despite more typical readings this week, the month remains on track to go down as the warmest December at the Pittsfield airport, where government agency records date back to 1938.
No significant snowfall is on the horizon later this week and over the New Year's holiday weekend. Milder air at mid-week will give way to more seasonable early winter readings by Saturday, but still somewhat above average — the normal range at the Pittsfield airport is 14 to 30 at the end of this month.
Temperatures have averaged 13 degrees above normal every day since Dec. 1, and record highs have been recorded on six days.