Natural gas inventories could become a lot tighter and prices could soar much higher in the coming winters if predictions from AccuWeather.com Chief Long Range Forecaster Joe Bastardi prove true.

While the meteorologist continues to note that this winter is on track to become the coldest for the nation as a whole since the 1980s or possibly even the late 1970s, Bastardi is now predicting that three or four out of the next five winters could be just as cold, if not colder. Late last week he said next winter could very well be colder than this one.

Bastardi added that with the United States in the middle of one of its worst recessions in its history and the price of oil in question, he is extremely concerned about the prospect for more persistent cold weather in the coming years putting increased financial hardship on Americans through higher heating bills.

Despite being one of the coldest winters on the whole over the last 40 years, natural gas prices have remained relatively low thanks to ample gas supply and healthy storage levels. The front-month natural gas futures contract on Monday closed at $4.104, down 24% from the $5.401 close during the same time last year and 15% lower than 2009's $4.807 price level.

"Cold is a lot worse than warm," Bastardi said, "and that's why your energy bill goes up during the winter time: because of the fact that it takes a lot to heat a house." While there are many different factors that are playing into Bastardi's forecast, one of the primary drivers is La Nina and the trends that have been observed in winters that follow the onset of a La Nina.

The current La Nina, which arrived last summer, is unprecedented after becoming the strongest on record in December 2010. Bastardi said he thinks this La Nina will last into next year, though it will be weaker, and will not disappear completely until 2012. He said studies over the past 100 years or so show that after the first winter following the onset of a La Nina, the next several winters thereafter tend to be colder than normal in the United States. He said the first winter during a La Nina tends to be warm. The next winter that follows is usually less warm, and the winter after that is usually cold.

"There's a natural tendency for that to happen because of the large-scale factors," Bastardi commented. "What's interesting about what we're seeing here is that [the current La Nina] is starting so cold."

If this winter, which has been colder than normal across the eastern two-thirds of the country, is historically supposed to be the warmest of the next three winters for the U.S., according to Bastardi, we have some frigid times ahead.

In addition to predicting cold over the next few winters, Bastardi thinks the long-term climate for the United States will turn colder over the next 20 to 30 years.

"What's interesting about what we're seeing here is that [the current La Nina] is starting so cold," said Bastardi, "and it's coinciding with bigger things that are pushing the overall weather patterns and climate in the Northern Hemisphere and, in fact, globally over the next 20 to 30 years that we have not really dealt with, nor can we really quantify.

"That ties into a lot of this arguing over climate change."

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