Siding more with the 2007 Farmers’ Almanac rather than forecasts released recently by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and EarthSat Energy Weather, Long-Range Forecaster Joe Bastardi said last week that he expects the 2006-2007 winter to be colder than normal along the high-energy-demand East Coast and eastern Gulf Coast.

Bastardi said he believes that the current El Nino pattern will be one of the factors that determines the nature of the coming winter, but that the government’s weather service is overplaying its effects. Unlike the NOAA forecast, Bastardi does not see this winter being warmer than normal across the vast majority of the country. However, he is predicting a warmer than normal winter from the western Great Lakes to the Pacific Northwest.

According to some in the natural gas industry, Bastardi’s bullish forecast for the East was partially responsible for the surge in natural gas futures prices during the week. For the week ended Oct. 20, the November natural gas contract soared $1.582 to close at $7.241.

“In addition to this early chill, I also think the question of what kind of winter is it going to be is back on the table due to recent conflicting forecasts,” a Washington, DC-based broker said. “Some are now calling for it to be potentially colder than normal in the East, which is why I think there is still some strength in this bull move.”

While the 2007 Farmers’ Almanac predicts a cold winter from coast to coast for the U.S. (see NGI, Sept. 11), both NOAA and EarthSat Energy Weather expect the season to be colder than last year but warmer than normal.

Sticking to its winter forecast released earlier this month (see NGI, Oct. 16), NOAA reiterated on Thursday that it expects this winter is to be warmer than the 30-year norm (1971-2000) over much of the nation, yet cooler than last year’s very warm winter season. NOAA’s heating degree day forecast for December, January and February projects a 2% warmer winter than the 30-year average but about 8% cooler than last year.

The winter forecasts of AccuWeather and NOAA being at odds is not a new situation. In October 2005, NOAA called for a warmer than normal 2005-2006 winter, while AccuWeather was looking for colder than normal conditions at least in the Northeast (see NGI, Oct. 17, 2005). The winter turned out to be warmer than normal on the whole.

For the 2006-2007 winter, the government forecasting agency pointed out that while there has been early season snowfall in Buffalo and wintry weather in the upper Midwest and Rockies this month, NOAA’s meteorologists say there is not much correlation between fall weather and the winter season.

From December through February, NOAA said it expects warmer than average temperatures across parts of the West, Southwest, Plains states, Midwest, parts of the Northeast and northern mid-Atlantic region, as well as most of Alaska. Near-average temperatures are favored for parts of the Southeast, while below-average temperatures are anticipated for Hawaii. Maine, the southern mid-Atlantic region, the Tennessee Valley, much of Texas and California, and the intermountain West have equal chances of warmer, cooler, and near-normal temperatures this winter.

In that same vein, Rockville, MD-based EarthSat Energy Weather said earlier in the week that its Dec.-Feb. outlook looks to be 5% colder than last year on a national natural gas-weighted basis, but still 5% warmer than the 30-year normal (1971-2000). EarthSat calls for the Midcontinent, which includes the Midwest, Plains, and Texas, to be the warmest versus normal, while the East Coast is forecast to average close to normal. The Pacific Northwest and Western Canada are forecast to be seasonal to warmer than normal with seasonal to below-normal precipitation, while the Southwest and California are forecast be seasonal to cooler than normal with normal to above-normal precipitation.

“We can blame El Nino for indications of a warmer Midcontinent, drier Northwest, and a wetter Southwest,” said Matt Rogers, EarthSat’s manager. “However, the strength of this event will determine the intensity of these correlations.”

Rogers pointed out that there are several risks to this current winter outlook, which will be addressed again in early November. “If the El Nino stays in its current weak state and the autumn continues to verify cooler than normal across North America, then I believe the odds increase for a colder-than-normal Eastern U.S. winter,” he said. “If the El Nino strengthens significantly in the next two months or if other factors change in the North Pacific, we could see a better chance for a warmer-than-forecast winter outcome. The [next] few weeks will be a very important bellwether to the coming season.”

Bastardi said his models show that the East will most likely be colder than normal. “The eastern U.S. will experience a colder than normal winter overall,” he said. “The area from the eastern and central Great Lakes to the south-central and southwestern U.S. will experience near-normal winter temperatures. The region that stretches from the western Great Lakes to the Pacific Northwest will likely see above-normal temperatures.”

Bastardi explained that an El Nino — a cyclical occurrence of warmer-than-normal Pacific waters — can have repercussions on worldwide weather patterns, particularly a strong El Nino, which features water temperatures that are significantly warmer over a broad expanse of tropical ocean. However, the meteorologist believes that the El Nino will remain at its current weak to moderate level, and may even weaken as the winter progresses. Because of this, a “typical” El Nino winter — such as the one predicted by the NOAA last week — that features warmer-than-normal temperatures across much of the U.S., is not as likely to occur, he said.

“We predict that the current El Nino will not be only determinant of this year’s winter weather,” said Bastardi. “This year’s winter will hinge on the timing and interaction of complex meteorological factors that would be overridden by a stronger El Nino that others seem to be expecting.”

One of those factors is the formation of a high pressure area over Greenland or northeastern Canada, which would force Arctic air down into the Northeast, he said. If this occurs as expected, the Northeast could experience severe, prolonged cold — ten days or more of temperatures averaging five to ten degrees below normal — during the middle to late winter, most likely during the month of January.

“Signs are pointing to the possibility of a rough conclusion to winter for the Northeast,” said Ken Reeves, director of Forecast Operations. “Examining past years where we see similar patterns to what we expect this winter bears this out. For example, the winter of 1992-1993 was moderate until early February, when it then became colder and snowier, and culminated with a harsh blizzard on March 13. Another of the winters we see a parallel to is 1957-1958, which again began more moderately, and concluded with significantly colder temperatures and major February and March snow storms.”

Bastardi also forecasts a wetter-than-average swath from southern and central California to the southern Plains and Southeast and up the East Coast, because an expected active subtropical jet stream will send storms on a track across the southern U.S. and likely ensure wet weather in the southern tier of the nation. He noted that how this moisture times itself with the arrival of colder air will determine how much snow the Northeast can expect, but winter is likely to be snowier than normal in the region — a mainstay of all winters since 2002.

The meteorologist added that major storms could be in store for the East. He said that very warm water relative to normal off all coasts provides ample moisture for any storm and, timed with cold air, would lend itself to heavy snowfall in the higher elevations of the Southwest and Southeast, and also the chance for some major coastal storms on the East Coast.

NOAA’s precipitation outlook calls for wetter-than-average conditions across the Southwest from central and southern California to Texas and for Florida and the south Atlantic Coast. Drier than average conditions are favored in the Ohio Valley, the northern Rockies and Hawaii. Other regions have equal chances of drier, wetter or near average precipitation. NOAA’s Seasonal Drought Outlook, also updated last Thursday, reflects the pattern of rainfall expected this winter.

“This pattern is expected to improve drought conditions across Arizona, Texas, portions of the Plains and Southeast,” NOAA said. “Drought is predicted to develop across parts of Idaho, Washington and Oregon.”

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