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WeatherBug: Drought Conditions May Push Winter Cold South

A continuation of the drought that began this summer in the nation's midsection could help keep temperatures in the region low this winter, and has the potential to trigger a repeat of 2010-2011's wellhead freeze-offs, according to a 2012-13 Winter Outlook released by Earth Networks-WeatherBug.

"We have areas that are very dry out there still and the forecast for the drought shows that through the next two or three months this drought is forecast to persist across the central and southern Plains, and some of those areas are going to be very dry," said Senior Meteorologist James Aman.

"What does that mean for the winter forecast? Well, it means that as we get cold air masses coming down out of Canada, there will be less in the way of soil moisture to sort of modify or warm up that cold air. So the expectation is that perhaps [if] we get one or two of these cold outbreaks to come down in the early part of the winter, like December or January, they could maintain their cold well down into the south-central Plains."

Extreme cold in the Southwest in early 2011 caused wellhead freeze-offs and compressor failures due to power outages, curtailing gas deliveries to thousands of customers in New Mexico, Arizona and Southern California supplied through El Paso Natural Gas and Transwestern Pipeline (see NGI, Feb. 7, 2011).

"There is some possibility that if we got a big cold outbreak here this winter that perhaps something like this could happen again this winter," Aman said. "Maybe not to the extent of what happened in 2011, but it could cause some disruptions in the production of natural gas and could lead to some temporary volatility in prices of natural gas this winter."

WeatherBug expects temperatures through February to average about normal for most of the eastern United States, including all of the Northeast population centers. The Ohio Valley will also see near-normal temperatures, but could be slightly colder than normal late in the winter, the forecasters said.

The Northern Plains, Northern Rockies and Washington state are likely to experience temperatures averaging below normal throughout the winter months, while the Great Lakes should see above-normal temperatures through January, with more moderate temperatures taking over after that.

Forecasters at Andover, MA-based Weather Services International (WSI) have said that they expect temperatures over the next three months to average above normal across most of the eastern two-thirds of the United States, a weather pattern that would keep a lid on natural gas consumption in population centers in the Northeast (see NGI, Oct. 29). The apparent end of an El Nino event -- the warming of water temperatures in the central and equatorial Pacific Ocean -- will make the November-January period cooler than normal across the northwestern quarter of the country and parts of the Southeast, WSI said.

And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently cited El Nino's retreat in its forecast of warmer-than-average temperatures across an area stretching from Arkansas west through Arizona and north as far as the Canadian border (see NGI, Oct. 22). Most of the rest of the United States can expect temperatures to average about normal from December through February, NOAA said.

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) said last month it expects U.S. households -- one-half of which use natural gas as their primary heating fuel -- to spend an average of $89 more this winter, reflecting a 1% increase in the average residential price from last winter and a 14% hike in consumption if near-normal (cold) temperatures materialize for the upcoming winter (see NGI, Oct. 15). Winter was unseasonably warm last year, resulting in little additional demand and weak prices. weak prices.

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