Chicago Winter Storm Watch: Blizzard conditions, dangerous wind chills, at least half a foot of snow

The National Weather Service has issued a winter storm watch from Thursday evening through Saturday morning.

"Confidence continues to increase that a major winter storm will impact the western Great Lakes region Thursday through Saturday with heavy snow, strong winds, and bitterly cold temperatures," the weather service said.

"The worst conditions will develop Thursday evening and continue into Friday evening, with a full-fledged blizzard possible accompanied by dangerously cold temperatures," it said. "The bitterly cold temperatures will continue through the weekend."


The storm will begin as a mix of rain and snow Thursday afternoon, changing to just snow later into the night, when the low will hit 4 degrees, the weather service said.

The current forecast is for the heaviest snow to fall Friday, driven by high winds as strong as 55 mph that could create blizzard-like conditions. The high will only be near 8.

The snow will taper off Christmas Eve but the high will only reach around 10 degrees and the low will reach around zero degrees. Christmas Day is expected to be mostly sunny, with a high near 11.

"Travel could be very difficult," the weather service warned. "Areas of blowing snow could significantly reduce visibility. The hazardous conditions could impact the morning or evening commutes. Gusty winds could bring down tree branches.

"Wind chills as low as 30 below zero could cause frostbite on exposed skin in as little as 30 minutes," the weather service said.

The storm will hit as holiday travel is expected to be busier than years past.

Nearly 102 million Americans will drive to their holiday destinations this year, an increase of 2 million from last year, according to the AAA Motor Club.  "Travel by car this year is on par with 2018 but shy of 2019 when 108 million Americans drove out of town for the holidays, the highest year on record," the association said.

Air travel will see a 14% increase over last year, with nearly 7.2 million Americans expected to fly, it said. AAA expects the number of people taking holiday flights this year will be close to matching 2019 when 7.3 million Americans traveled by air.

In Chicago, O’Hare and Midway airports are expected to handle about 2.9 million travelers between this Wednesday and Monday, Jan. 2, according to the Chicago Department of Aviation.

O’Hare is expected to see a 4.7% increase in passengers from last year with Thursday — when the storm will arrive — the busiest day of travel. Midway will see about a 26% in passengers from last year, the department said.