Despite the U.S. having just experienced its fourth warmest December since records began in 1895 (see Daily GPI, Jan. 10), AccuWeather chief long-range forecaster Joe Bastardi said the unseasonably warm winter to date in the United States is likely to "turn on a dime" this month. If his forecast proves true, natural gas and power prices could be jolted higher, as already evidenced by the natural gas futures market's response to these cold front warnings.
Citing the current developing weather pattern, Bastardi said that the mid-January through mid-February period has a chance to mimic the winters of 1965-66 and 1957-58, each of which ended cold and stormy after a warm start. A "worst-case" scenario would be if this winter plays out as did the winter of 1977-1978, he said. Similar to this year, 1977-1978 was a winter with a waning El Nino. After a tepid start, the second half of the winter was noted for its cold and remarkable storminess, including back-to-back-to-back blizzards in the Northeast.
If the weather pattern reaches its full potential, the dramatic change from warmth to cold could result in "one of the top-five coldest 30-day stretches in the past half century," he said.
In anticipation of winter and falling temperatures, natural gas front-month futures prices pushed to a high of $9.05 on Nov. 30. When seasonal temperatures did not materialize in a number of key gas-demand regions across the country, the future price of gas dropped, recording a low of $5.74 on Dec. 27. However, cold weather forecasts late last week and early this week produced a rebound in futures prices to a high of $6.80 on Wednesday.
"Those who think that winter 2006-2007 is going to remain mild are in for a shock," said Bastardi. "Winter is likely to come with a vengeance. A week from now, we'll start seeing truly cold air across much of the country, and we expect this change to last.
"Whether we end up with seasonably cold weather, or something far worse, remains to be seen," he added. "There are indications that this winter could parallel severe winters of the past. Even should we not see an extremely cold and snowy conclusion to winter, you can be sure that by the end of the month, when those in the Northeast are shoveling out their driveways and sidewalks, the mild weather we're experiencing now will be a distant memory."
Bastardi said the first signs of change will be noticed this week as a passing shot of cold air will knock temperatures down to typical January levels in the northeastern part of the country for a few days. He noted that temperatures will return to unseasonably warm levels by the latter part of the week and last into early next week. The seeds for the more-lasting change, however, will be planted in the western part of the country.
Arctic air from western Canada will pour southward into the Pacific Northwest, northern Rockies and northern Plains this week, and this will mark the beginning of a true winter weather pattern that will encompass much of the nation over the next couple of weeks, the forecaster said. The core of the coldest air by the latter part of the week will be centered in the Rockies and northern Plains, and the arrival of the cold air will mean another round of accumulating snow for Denver later this week.
The cold air will slowly push southward and eastward from this weekend into early next week and will likely arrive in the eastern part of the country by the middle of next week, he said. Much of the nation will then have a cold weather pattern for the second half of the month.
However, Bastardi was quick to point out that it's too early to say with certainty that the change in the weather pattern will be long-lasting or produce heavy amounts of snow.
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