Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff
Just when you thought it couldn’t get any more unpleasant out there, the National Weather Service said Tuesday it is increasingly confident Eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island will be hit by a significant winter storm Wednesday night.
The storm has the potential to bring blizzard conditions, with heavy snow whipped by strong winds. The latest prediction calls for up to 12 inches of snow in Eastern Massachusetts. Coastal flooding is also possible. And after it’s done, the region will be plunged again into bitter cold Friday and Saturday, the forecasters said.
That return to the deep freeze could be a serious problem if the storm’s winds knock out people’s electricity. The forecasters said they were especially concerned about damaging winds and power outages on the state’s coast.
The exact amount of snow that might fall is uncertain, the forecasters said, and depends on how close the storm system comes to New England.
But forecasters issued a winter storm watch effective late Wednesday night through late Thursday night for the Boston area, North Shore, South Shore, and parts of Southeastern Massachusetts, warning of 8 to 12 inches of snow.
In addition to warning of tree branches falling, the forecasters predicted difficult travel conditions.
“Blowing and drifting is going to be a huge problem with this storm,” said Dave Dombek, senior meteorologist with Accuweather.com. He warned that the light, fluffy snow could pile up on roads, and visibility could be diminished.
Smaller amounts of snow are expected in Central and Western Massachusetts and on Cape Cod and the Islands, according to a snowfall forecast map posted by the weather service early Tuesday morning.
The weather service said it wasn’t certain how far into the state’s interior the heavy snow would get.
On Tuesday morning, people returning to their jobs from the New Year’s holiday were subjected to bitter cold. Temperatures at 4 a.m. ranged from 15 degrees on Nantucket to 13 below zero in Chicopee. By late morning, temperatures were climbing into the double digits in some areas around the state.
Forecasters urged people to dress warmly, MBTA officials recommended adding 20 extra minutes for commute times all this week, and several school districts canceled or delayed classes.
“Please use caution if heading out and about, as frostbite can occur in as little as 30 minutes to exposed skin,” the National Weather Service tweeted.
The Hingham commuter ferry to Boston was suspended because of ice damage to a dock, and Red Line trains were operating at reduced speeds between JFK/UMass and Andrew Station to “ensure a more reliable ride during this cold weather,” officials announced on the MBTA website.
Shuttle buses will take passengers from the Hingham ferry terminal to the commuter rail station in West Hingham, which will accept their boat passes, said Joe Pesaturo, an MBTA spokesman.
“For us, our first priority is to run a safe system for all the riders and the employees that are operating them,” MBTA General Manager Luis Ramirez said Monday evening in a conference call. The agency will be doing everything it can to maintain normal service, Ramirez said, but noted that “given the last few days and the experiences we’re seeing across the region, we think it’s prudent to prepare” for possible delays.
MBTA riders should keep an eye on out for the latest travel alerts on www.mbta.com/winter.
The MBTA is also taking steps to ensure that rail lines continue to run smoothly, Ramirez said. Trains will be stored in tunnels and maintenance facilities during morning hours to avoid hazards from freezing, and those that can’t fit will run on rail yards, he said.
Operators will open and close train doors and test brakes, and the heaters for track switches will be tested throughout the day. Extra maintenance staff will stand by at “strategic locations” to address any issues that arise.
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