The eastern United States, which has been buffeted by colder-than-normal temperatures and a series of snowstorms this winter, will remain under the thumb of colder-than-normal weather for the next three months, while the West can expect warmer-than-normal temperatures through May, according to the latest seasonal forecast from Andover, MA-based WSI Corp.

"After another month of widespread below-normal temperatures across the central and eastern U.S. in February, we think the focus of the cold weather will shift southward and eastward in March as an atmospheric ridge sets up in the western and central U.S.," said WSI seasonal forecaster Todd Crawford. "The primary drivers for our extreme winter pattern, specifically a strong, dateline-centered El Nino event and a stratospheric warming event, will both be on the wane as we head into March. The residual effects will likely linger into spring, however, with cold temperatures focused in the Southeast U.S. and warm temperatures spreading from the western into the central U.S."

WSI is forecasting 1,191 gas-weighted heating degree days for the March-May period, approximately 4% more than same three-month period last year and about 2% fewer than the 1971-2000 average.

Colder-than-normal temperatures will dominate the East and South-Central United States in March, with warmer-than-normal temperatures forecast for the West and North-Central areas, WSI said. Natural gas demand is likely to be near normal during the month, according to Paul Flemming, Energy Security Analysis Inc. (ESAI) director of power and gas.

"Power prices in the East will continue to be responsive to delivered gas prices, but lower loads in March will moderate prices," Flemming said in a statement issued in conjunction with WSI's outlook. "March marks the beginning of the maintenance season with nuclear refueling outages in many areas. Nuclear outages will add to late-season gas demand as gas-fired generation makes up the difference."

WSI's temperature forecast map remains unchanged for April, with generally cooler temperatures remaining east of the Mississippi River and significantly warmer-than-normal temperatures dominating the West. "Cooler temperatures in the Northeast will be slightly bullish for electric loads, but generator maintenance schedules will play a more bullish role in power markets than changes in weather patterns," Flemming said.

By May, WSI sees warmer-than-normal temperatures, which are forecast to still be in place across the West, moving into the South-Central region. At the same time, stubborn colder-than-normal temperatures will continue their winter-long grip over the East, according to WSI.

"In May, gas demand for heating will shift to early season cooling, which may be significant in the western regions," Flemming said. "Cooler temperatures in the Northeast will dampen electric loads and generator maintenance schedules will continue to be an important factor."

The WSI seasonal outlooks reference a standard 30-year norm (1971-2000). The next WSI forecast, for the April-June period, is scheduled to be issued March. 23. Chief Long Range Forecaster Joe Bastardi has said this may turn out to be the worst winter in 25 years (see NGI, Jan. 11). Typically, when below-normal cold periods arrive in winter they are limited to one region, but this winter the colder air is stretching over larger portions of the country, Bastardi said.

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