Winter is expected to come muscling back into Minnesota on Tuesday and Wednesday, with high winds, more than a foot of snow possible in some places, and, for good measure, sleet, rain and even thunder.

It will be the strongest storm of what has been a remarkably mild winter and could even lead to the metro area's first snow emergencies of the season, which for Minneapolis would be the latest on record.

The full impact will depend on the strength and movement of warm air just to the south of the metro area. On Monday evening, the forecast called for 3 to 6 inches of snow across the metro area by Wednesday night. Between the south metro and the Iowa border, 1 to 3 inches of snow, along with rain, sleet and ice, were expected. The storm could dump one inch of total precipitation on southern Minnesota by Wednesday. The precipitation was expected to begin at midday in the metro area as snow, then change to rain and sleet through the afternoon before reverting to snow.

But as much as 15 inches were predicted across central Minnesota, from Alexandria to Brainerd to near Duluth. Northeast Minnesota could see 8 new inches on top of a foot that fell across parts of the Arrowhead on Sunday.

The National Weather Service issued a blizzard watch for western Minnesota, citing possible wind gusts of up to 35 miles per hour Tuesday and into Wednesday.

The forecast had state and local road departments treating roads with chemicals to reduce the bond between snow and ice and the pavement.

Ten days ago, there was little or no snow on the ground across most of the state; drought had been locked in place since mid-summer.

"This is probably good for the farmers," said Weather Service forecaster Jim Taggart. "It's the first good system since August."

At the Minnesota Department of Transportation, staffers will be watching forecasts, reports from areas to the west, and road temperature sensors Tuesday to determine how to deploy MnDOT's 800 plow trucks statewide, and with what materials.

"Some spots are going to get a lot of snow. Other spots are going to get a rain-snow mix or sleet," said MnDOT spokeswoman Jessica Wiens. "A lot of it is just waiting and seeing and being ready to push the snow to the side."

Snow emergencies?

In Minneapolis, a snow emergency could be invoked with 4 inches of snow; St. Paul generally requires 3 inches or more. Although Minneapolis hasn't had one yet this winter, predicted cool weather means the city wouldn't be inclined to let a significant snowfall just melt, said Mike Kennedy, winter operations manager.

Kennedy didn't know of a single winter in the past 30 that hasn't included at least one snow emergency. The latest date for a first such emergency was Feb. 25, 2007, and that one, Kennedy cautioned, was followed by two more in March. "If it were the end of March, it would be a little different," he said. "But we're not out of the woods yet. We still have some winter left."

While the storm may disrupt travel, school and business schedules, the forecast had some people excited.

"All of us are just standing by our groomers, ready to go," said Mark Kavanaugh, a Brainerd-area resort owner and president of the Crow Wing County Snowmobile Trails Association, whose group bought a $180,000 groomer this season but hasn't used it yet.

"This is my 43rd year in the winter business, and I've never seen a winter like this," he added. "There have always been marginal years, but you always get a few weekends where the riding is good. I've never seen a year when there's been nothing. If we can stretch this into the middle of March, we could salvage a little bit of the season. That will really help. That's a lot of dollars."

Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646