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A "classic" winter storm is set to bring massive waves, damaging winds, snow and heavy rain to New Zealand until early next week, forecasters warn.

Metservice today said waves of a height only seen "about once a year" were expected to hammer the west coast of the North and South Islands on Sunday.

They would hit amidst a weekend-long winter storm covering much of the country, it said.

It predicted bouts of heavy rain and thunderstorms would hit areas areas from Waikato to Fiordland tonight and Saturday.

Several troughs moving northwards over the West Coast would bring heavy rain, strong winds and hail to Nelson, Buller, Westland and Fiordland and severe gales were also seen likely in the east of the country from Hawke's Bay to Southland.

Wind gusts of up to 110km/h could cause damage to trees and power lines and make driving dangerous, it said.

MetService Weather Ambassador Bob McDavitt said the storm showed winter weather was setting in over New Zealand.

"This is a classic winter storm."

Snowfalls during the storm were expected to make driving difficult on major South Island alpine roads from tonight.

Metservice said Arthur's Pass and Lindis Pass would receive 20 to 40cm of snow on Friday and Saturday, while up to 80cm could accumulate on Milford Rd.

Between five and 10cm of snow was expected to fall on Lewis Pass and Porters Pass.

Snow showers had cleared on Desert Rd in the central North Island.

Bad weather disrupts transport

Meanwhile, storms and strong winds lashing the country have disrupted public transport and forced an Air Force jet to make an emergency landing in Whenuapai.

Metservice has issued a severe weather warning over much of the country for today and tomorrow.

A strong wind warning is already in place for eastern areas from Hawke's Bay southwards.

Gales are expected to hit Taranaki from tomorrow.

Thunderstorms in Auckland this morning forced an Air Force plane to make an emergency landing at Whenuapai Airbase.

The Wellington-bound RNZAF Boeing 757 was hit by lighting five minutes after taking off from the airbase around 8am.

It circled the airbase waiting for a break in the weather for more than an hour before making its emergency landing at 9:40am.

Air Force spokesman Kavae Tamariki said Whenuapai Airbase engineers were now checking the aircraft for damage and talking to crew.

The emergency landing was a precautionary measure and it did not seem the plane had been damaged by the lightning strike, he said.

Fullers operations manager Warren Fowler said Northcote wharf on Auckland's North Shore had been closed due to weather at 11am.

Ferry services were expected to be disrupted until mid-afternoon and passengers had been redirected onto buses, he said.

No other wharves were expected to close.

Transport services in Wellington were also disrupted by severe weather this morning.

Trains were cancelled on the Johnsonville line between Johnsonville and Ngaio for an hour due to bad weather.

All services had resumed by 8am.