This winter could end up being one of the coldest the United States has experienced since the 1980s, according to AccuWeather.com chief long-range forecaster Joe Bastardi, who said temperatures are expected to continue to average below normal from the northern and central Plains into the East through at least the middle of next month.

There may be breaks in the cold weather in February and March, "and then April, I think, is a real tough month in the Northern Plains into the Northeast part of the United States," Bastardi said Thursday. That would be a significant change from last year, when the Great Lakes and Northeast had their warmest back-to-back March and April on record, according to AccuWeather.com.

Still to be decided is what effect the extension of chilly temperatures through the remainder of the winter will have on natural gas prices. After reaching a low of $3.212 back in late October 2010, front-month natural gas futures values have basically been stuck within the $3.700 to $4.650 price range as plump storage levels and increased production from the shales around the country continue to alleviate the upward price pressure tied to below-normal temperatures. During the same period last winter, front-month natural gas futures prices traded between $4 to a little more than $6, with the season's high of $6.108 recorded on Jan. 7, 2010.

On Friday, February futures closed at $4.736, up 4.1 cents from Thursday's finish.

Temperatures since Dec. 1 have averaged below normal from Boston to New York City, as far west as Minneapolis and as far south as New Orleans and Miami. A Christmas weekend blizzard dumped more than two feet of snow on parts of New York City, which has received 36 inches of snow already this winter, according to the National Weather Service (NWS). On Friday the Northeast was bracing for another winter storm.

On Jan. 12 Florida was the only state in the country -- including Hawaii -- that didn't have some snow on the ground, according to NWS.

The northern Plains and East can expect more snow this winter. "A lot of the snow will be north of [Interstate Highway] 40 in the Plains, north of the Ohio River...and once you get to Pennsylvania or the Mid-Atlantic states it'll be north of the Mason-Dixon line," Bastardi said. South of that line, storms are more likely to dump a mix of snow, ice and rain.

Late-season winter storms are common in the Plains and East during La Nina events, and the current La Nina -- an unusual cooling of ocean surface temperatures off the western coast of South America -- could continue into next year, Bastardi said.

The South, which has already seen heavy snow from Arkansas to Georgia this month, can expect chilly conditions to continue for some time, he said. "I think it's colder than normal down there through mid-February on the balance, and a couple of outstanding cold shots get down there -- I guess if it's going to get cold it could snow again -- but certainly when you're talking about where's the worst of winter, I think it's farther north."

Temperatures in Texas and the Southwest may average normal or below-normal through the end of this month, but they are expected to average above-normal through February, according to AccuWeather.com. Much of the West is also expected to see above-normal temperatures until late February, when below-normal temperatures are forecast to move into the Northwest and northern Rockies.

The unusually heavy precipitation that has plagued Southern California recently is at an end, and precipitation should average out below normal there for the winter, while precipitation in the Northwest should remain above average, Bastardi said.

Following record-cold December temperatures, Bastardi earlier this month said this could be the coldest January for the nation since 1985 (see Daily GPI, Jan. 5).

Forecasters at Andover, MA-based WSI Corp., on the other hand, had expected warmer-than-normal temperatures across the eastern United States during January and February, with colder-than-normal temperatures taking over by late winter (see Daily GPI, Dec. 21, 2010). The emergence of a "more textbook La Nina pattern" was expected to help moderate those late winter temperatures, WSI said.

And forecasters at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said they expected the La Nina event to bring above-normal temperatures to a huge area stretching from the Rocky Mountains to the Mid-Atlantic through February, but said it was less clear how it would affect winter temperatures in the Northeast (see Daily GPI, Nov. 19, 2010).

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