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Forecasters Differ on What's In Store for the U.S. in Terms of Winter Weather

October 17, 2005
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As shut-ins in the Gulf of Mexico continue to carve away available natural gas supplies for the winter, people are now turning their attention to exactly what type of winter the U.S. can expect. Depending on which forecasting organization you believe, some regions could be colder or warmer than normal.

The Northeastern United States this winter is in for colder-than-normal temperatures, while west of the Continental Divide is expected to see milder-than-normal conditions, according to the Winter Forecast released by AccuWeather.com's Long Range Forecast Team, led by Chief Meteorologist Joe Bastardi. Differing greatly from the AccuWeather.com forecast, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) winter outlook for December through February calls for warmer-than-normal temperatures across most of the U.S.

The AccuWeather.com forecast predicts snowfall levels in New England and the mountains of the Pacific Northwest to be above normal, while the center of the nation will see as little as half of the normal snowfall. Overall, New England will be the hardest hit, with a cold and snowy winter expected.

The forecasting firm said the active hurricane season of 2005 could be a lead indicator to a colder than normal winter in the Northeast.

AccuWeather.com based its findings on a study of the 2005 hurricane season and other similar "hyper-hurricane" seasons, particularly 1933, 1969 and 1995. The winters that followed each of those active hurricane years were cold in the Northeast. The winter of 1995-96 was cold across the northern Plains and the Southeast. Bitter cold gripped the Midwest in the winter of 1969-70, while a severe winter settled over the Northeast in 1933-34, a winter that was unseasonably warm west of the Ohio Valley.

Active hurricane seasons are a by-product of warmer-than-normal water temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean. AccuWeather.com said the warm water southeast of the U.S. drains the normal continental cooling during winter toward the Southeast. The westward shift of cold air across North America is due more to the profile in the temperate region of the Pacific Ocean.

For the Northeast this winter, the firm predicts colder-than-normal temperatures by as much as 3.5 degrees. The forecast predicts the Southwest will be warmer than usual, as much as 4 degrees warmer than the interior West. "If that turns out to be true, it will continue the trend of normal to below-normal temperatures over the Northeast that started during the winter of 2000-2001 and was interrupted only once," AccuWeather.com said. "The mid-section of the nation will have near to above-normal temperatures."

AccuWeather.com said the Northeast has seen more snowfall than average in four of the past five winters, and that trend looks to continue again this winter. The firm noted that even if it is drier than normal, factors in the North Atlantic lead to enough cold in the region that it will snow more than normal. A warm summer usually leads to normal or above-normal snow amounts in the Great Lakes. This appears to be the idea for the eastern Lakes, but the trend may need to be extended westward.

"The other area that will receive above-average snowfall is the mountains of the Pacific Northwest, a welcome change from the dry winter of 2004-2005," AccuWeather.com said. "The assumption is that the warm water south of Alaska will push storms into the region, so that even if it is milder than normal, it snows more. Snow in the Plains should be less than normal, while in the Southland, absent an El Niño, snow becomes more of a 50/50 chance."

As for NOAA, the government agency's 2005-2006 U.S. Winter Outlook calls for warmer-than-normal temperatures across much of the central and western United States, including Alaska and Hawaii. The Midwest, the Southern California coast and the East Coast have equal chances of warmer, cooler, or near-normal temperatures this winter.

"Even though the average temperature over the three-month winter season is forecast to be above normal in much of the country, there will still be bouts of winter weather with cold temperatures and frozen precipitation," said NOAA Administrator Conrad C. Lautenbacher.

NOAA said it does not expect La Nina and El Nino/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) to play a role in this winter's forecast. Without ENSO, forecasters look to other short-term climate factors, like the North Atlantic Oscillation, in determining the overall winter patterns. Under these conditions there tends to be more variability in winter weather patterns across the nation, especially in the Great Lakes region and the northeast U.S.

The precipitation outlook is just as uncertain, showing equal chances of above, near or below normal precipitation for much of the country. NOAA is calling for wetter-than-normal conditions across most of Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and northeastern Texas. Drier-than-normal conditions are expected across the Southwest from Arizona to New Mexico.

As winter approaches, nearly 20% of the nation is in some level of drought compared to around 30% of the country this time last year as defined by the U.S. Drought Monitor. NOAA said that for the sixth year in a row, drought remains a concern for parts of the Northwest and northern Rockies. Wet or dry conditions during the winter typically have a significant impact on drought conditions. NOAA cautioned that it would take a number of significant winter snowstorms to end the drought in the Pacific Northwest and northern Rockies.

Looking to add more precision to seasonal outlooks, NOAA's Climate Prediction Center has formed a Climate Test Bed, which is a collaborative scientific effort among the operational, academic and research communities. The mission of the Climate Test Bed is to accelerate the transfer of atmospheric and oceanic research and development into operational climate forecasts, products and applications. NOAA said the Climate Test Bed is currently focused on maximizing the use of the agency's Climate Forecast System model in combination with other climate forecast tools to improve U.S. seasonal precipitation and temperature outlooks.

NOAA said it will publish updates to the 2005-2006 U.S. Winter Outlook via the web Oct. 20, and Nov. 17. The meteorological winter begins Dec. 1, while the astronomical winter begins Dec. 21.

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