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A sprawling winter storm threatens snow, strong winds and potential tornadoes in the Central US

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A dangerous winter storm racing across the Central US will produce a range of potential hazards, including the possibility of tornadoes, heavy snow and large hail through the early weekend.

"This dynamic, sprawling storm will impact more than half the country. It's a classic clash of air masses," said CNN Meteorologist Gene Norman.

Winter returns for a large section of the US

On the northern part of the system, snow will blanket a large area of the country from the Intermountain West to the Upper Great Lakes through Saturday. Over 10 million Americans are under some form of Winter Weather alerts from this system.

Many motorists will be forced to test their winter driving skills for the first time this season as conditions quickly deteriorate under a band of heavy snow from Cheyenne, Wyoming, to Marquette, Michigan.

"Given this is the first widespread and significant snowfall of the season, residents in these areas are urged to plan ahead and take proper precautions if venturing out into the storm," explained the Weather Prediction Center.

Snowfall rates of 1 to 2 inches per hour are possible tonight into Saturday morning across a large stretch of the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes region.

A widespread area of 6 inches of snow is anticipated, with up to a foot possible where the center of the low-pressure system pivots and dumps the heaviest snowfall. This area includes Southern Minnesota, Northern Wisconsin and portions of Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

Heavy snow will be accompanied by strong gusty winds that will make travel conditions extremely difficult.

Blowing snow from winds gusting over 50 miles per hour will reduce visibilities and create slick roads from the Central Plains to the Upper Great Lakes. Potential travel impacts could be greatest across the heavily traversed Interstate 90 corridor.

Increased risk of nocturnal tornadoes

Another factor in this complex December storm is the severe weather expected to develop tonight from the Lower Mississippi Valley to Central Ohio. This includes the threat for nocturnal tornadoes as the line of strong thunderstorms marches eastward.

An enhanced risk of severe weather -- Level 3 of 5 -- has been outlined by The Storm Prediction Center, covering major cities like Nashville, Memphis, St. Louis and Louisville. The area has the greatest probability of strong EF2-EF5 tornadoes with winds of at least 111 mph or higher possible.

Meanwhile, a slight risk (Level 2) of severe storms and tornadoes extends as far south as Shreveport, Louisiana, and as far north as Cincinnati, Ohio.

The southern portion of this expansive storm system will usher in a warm air mass that will clash with an advancing cold front.

The interaction between these systems will be the catalyst for the line of powerful storms that develops. It is possible the storms could also contain large hail and damaging winds.

High winds expected behind system

As the storm pushes east late Friday, it will intensify, allowing for howling winds to develop.

A High Wind Watch is in effect from Saturday morning through Saturday evening for much of southern Michigan, including Detroit, where southwest winds of 20 to 30 mph with gusts into up to 60 mph are possible. This could lead to downed trees and power lines. The National Weather Service warns that "widespread power outages are possible."

Those high winds will also impact areas in and around Lake Michigan, including Chicago, as a gale watch remains in effect from late Friday night through Saturday afternoon.

As the storm moves across the area, northwest winds of 25 to 35 knots are expected with gusts up to 45 knots along with 6- to 13-foot waves.


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CNN meteorologist Gene Norman contributed to this report.


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