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NEW: One store in the D.C. area is selling plenty of ice melt, CNN affiliate reports

Up to 2 feet of snow could fall in Washington

Up to a foot is forecast for New York and Boston

CNN  — 

It was bound to happen sometime – the return of winter to the Northeast. It is January, after all.

It’s three weeks into the new year, and a major snowstorm is brewing. It could make life miserable for some 50 million people in the Northeast.

So, Washington – how does 2 feet of snow sound? Hey, New York and Boston – you could wake up to 12 inches of powder on Saturday. But will this monster of a storm even happen?

What to buy in advance of the storm

Weather prognosticators say it’s too soon to know. But it’s apparently not too soon to go to the store.

The manager at Strosniders Hardware in Silver Spring, Maryland, told CNN affiliate WJLA that customers had bought almost all of his ice melt.

“They know (the storm is) coming,” Roy Washington said. “They hear the forecast, and they want to be prepared for it.”

People were also buying heaters, shovels, and sleds, WJLA reported.

Protect your skin from winter weather

So is this mess coming or not?

The forecast is dicey. The system is just starting to come in from the Pacific and won’t reach the East Coast until Friday.

“There is a moderate threat for a significant winter storm Friday into Saturday,” according to the National Weather Service. It could make a mess of things from eastern Tennessee to Maine and into Canada.

Major travel delays, blowing and drifting snow and coastal flooding could all be in the mix if the forecast holds true.

But this far out, the forecast has a large margin of error. Timing and intensity will continue to change throughout the week, and the effects could be anywhere from extensive to minimal.

What to watch out for

Forecast models on Tuesday continued to show the potential for major snowfall late Friday through Saturday. How severe this storm turns out to be will depend on what happens as this system moves across land.

As of Tuesday, it was forecast to hit in the mid-Atlantic, bringing more than a foot of snow.

This forecast won’t bring warm memories for folks in the Boston area.

At this time last year, Beantown had received little snow, but over the course of the next few weeks, it was buried under a record-setting 110 inches of it.

Forecasters will have a better idea how predictions are lining up as the week progresses.

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CNN’s Steve Almasy contributed to this report.