This can cause blizzard conditions, sometimes accompanied by lightning, according to The Weather Channel.
Forecasters said heavy snow and high winds were set to slam coastal New York and Massachusetts.
New York City's Central Park saw 9 inches by 1 p.m., while parts of the Boston area got about 3 inches, the National Weather Service said. The storm was winding down in the Philadelphia area by early afternoon, and less than the 6 inches forecasted actually fell, NBC Philadelphia reported.
"We are asking folks to stay off the roads tomorrow and not travel unless absolutely necessary," Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker warned. "The last time we had a storm of this nature, accumulation turned out to be much higher than originally anticipated."
Anticipating widespread impact from the storm, airlines canceled more than 2,700 arrivals and departures Thursday, according to the flight-tracking website FlightAware.
The winter storm is being caused by a southward plunge in the polar jet stream, causing a low-pressure system that's moving northeast, according to The Weather Channel.
A swath of coast from Maine through New York into Philadelphia was under a winter storm warning and much of Long Island and Cape Cod, Massachusetts, were under blizzard warnings.
"What may happen is people will get on the road and it's not particularly bad and then suddenly it gets to 8 o'clock [a.m.], and I will tell you an inch and a half to 2 inches of snow an hour is hard for people to handle," Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy told reporters Wednesday.
The storm system was expected to be a "quick hit — in and out," according to Michael Palmer, with the snow expected to stop in the afternoon.
The fast flurry couldn't be a further cry from the record highs seen on Wednesday, when New York hit a pleasant 62 degrees, Philadelphia reached 66 and it was a balmy 72 Washington, D.C.
"You're seeing people out there on bicycles today. Don't be fooled," New York City Emergency Management Commissioner Joseph Esposito warned Wednesday.
Earlier Wednesday, icy conditions were suspected in a 55-vehicle pileup in Wakefield, Massachusetts, north of Boston. Eight people were taken to hospitals, but none of the injuries were considered life-threatening, NBC Boston reported.
"When I tapped my brakes, it was just a sheet of ice, and there's nothing I could really do after that. Everybody just started sliding into each other," Nathan St. Onge told the station.