Just a little over a week after its first crack at forecasting the 2007/2008 U.S. winter (December 2007 through February 2008), the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said Thursday that its latest model runs not only confirm its earlier prediction for above-average temperatures over most of the country, but also increases how warm it is expected to be. The government forecasting agency also sees a continuation of drier-than-average conditions across much of the Southwest and Southeast.

If milder temperatures for a majority of the country are realized, natural gas supply levels and electricity grid loads likely won't come under pressure, keeping prices in check. However, with NOAA also forecasting a La Nina event, when ocean surface temperatures cool off the western coast of South America, conditions this winter could be hard to nail down. During the last recorded La Nina event in late 2000, natural gas futures prices jumped by $5.720. After the La Nina event came into play in late 2000, front-month natural gas futures recorded a low trade of $4.380 during the first week of November and a high trade of $10.100 during the last week of December. However, it should also be noted that gas in storage only reached a peak of 2,748 Bcf during the 2000 injection season. Current supply stands at 3,375 Bcf.

"The prediction for a warmer than normal winter is still on course," said Michael Halpert, head of forecast operations and acting deputy director of NOAA's Climate Prediction Center (CPC). "Our big concern continues to be the persistence of drought across large parts of the country's southern tier. Nearly half of the Southeast is in extreme drought and water supplies have reached critical levels in some cities."

NOAA's updated winter forecast expects conditions this winter to be even warmer than the government agency expected earlier this month. For the country as a whole, NOAA's updated heating degree day forecast for December through February projects a 3.4% warmer winter than the 30-year normal, but a 0.7% cooler winter than last year. Earlier this month NOAA's forecast included a heating degree day forecast for December through February that was 2.8% warmer than the 30-year normal, but still 1.3% cooler than last winter.

Looking at the most recent forecast, the entire eastern and central United States, plus Hawaii and northern Alaska are expected to record warmer than normal conditions with the south central region recording the warmest temperatures over normal. NOAA said Southern California, New Mexico and Nevada are also expected to record warmer than normal temperatures, while Northern California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and parts of Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota are expected to have an equal chance of being normal or warmer or colder than normal.

"Even though December, January and February are likely to be milder than average for much of the country, people should still expect some typical winter weather this season," said Halpert.

Addressing the drought, NOAA said that despite some recent short-term relief over the Southeast and Tennessee Valley, and the potential for additional short-term relief during the next 10 days, meteorologists predict that the drought will continue through the winter for many areas in the Southeast. Although forecasters cannot rule out much-needed rain in any location in coming months, the latest U.S. drought outlook shows reduced chances for significant relief along the Gulf and Southeast coasts, as the odds for soaking tropical rains diminish as the Atlantic hurricane season winds down.

"Drought is by no means limited to the Southeast, as severe drought expanded northward all the way to Delaware this month. The Washington, DC, area is experiencing one of the most notable dry spells on record, with Oct. 17 the 33rd consecutive day without measurable rain at Reagan National Airport," said Douglas LeComte, drought specialist at CPC.

Additionally, NOAA meteorologists said the onset of La Nina means that drought will likely persist in the Mid-Atlantic and the Southwest from Southern California into Arizona. In contrast, the drought forecast shows continued improvement for the Northeast and Great Lakes region, as well as the Northwest and northern Rockies.

NOAA will update its 2007-08 U.S. winter outlook for the final time this season on Nov. 15.

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