Colder-than-normal temperatures will dominate across the eastern half of the United States for the next three months, while the West can look forward to mostly warmer-than-normal conditions, according to forecasters at Weather Services International (WSI).

Widespread temperature changes could come before New Years, said WSI Chief Meteorologist Todd Crawford.

“The El Nino event flexed its muscle a bit in December, with a howling Pacific jet responsible for much needed rain in California and record warmth across parts of the northern U.S.,” Crawford said. “As we head towards the end of 2014, however, big changes are in store again as the cold air factory at the North Pole will turn its cannons back towards to North America again.

“There is some question about how long the cold pattern will last, since the sub-seasonal signals suggest a similar evolution to what we’ve seen in December, with very cold temperatures early followed by warmer temperatures later in the month. We expect the western U.S., after a cold start to the month, to become much warmer later in the month, with the eastern U.S. bearing the brunt of the cold for the remainder of the month.”

WSI expects colder-than-normal temperatures to be in place over the eastern United States in January, while the rest of the country will average warmer than normal.

“Natural gas prices could get a minor boost in January due to a shift to colder temperatures in the population-rich eastern half of the country,” said Energy Securities Analysis Inc.’s Chris Kostas, senior power and gas analyst. “With slightly colder-than-normal temperatures expected east of the Mississippi, natural gas prices in the Northeast will likely firm from December’s relatively subdued levels. Slightly firmer natural gas prices are also likely to be seen at Henry Hub, though with the gains seen in the Marcellus region and pipeline expansions that have occurred this year, the price effects of cold temperatures in the Northeast will be muted. Also helping to offset the price effects of slightly colder-than-normal temperatures in the East, will be the relatively warmer-than-normal temperatures that are expected in the West.

“Although slightly colder-than-normal January temperatures are expected in many of the same regions that experienced frigid temperatures last January, production gains and pipeline expansions over the summer have improved supply availability and should prevent a recurrence of the volatile price behavior seen last year. While natural gas prices in New England are expected to be strong in January, a slightly larger winter reliability program this year will combine with much lower fuel oil prices to temper some of the region’s gas price volatility.”

By February, WSI forecasters expect the South Central area and the easternmost North Central area to join the East in the colder-than-normal column. “With much colder-than-normal temperatures expected over the East Coast, demand centers like New York City and pipeline-constrained regions like New England could see natural gas price strength in February,” Kostas said. “With WSI forecasts for colder-than-normal February temperatures over much of the eastern portion of the country, natural gas inventory withdrawals could be above average, which would also support prices.”

The Energy Information Administration on Wednesday reported a 49 Bcf natural gas storage withdrawal, about 11 Bcf less than analysts had been expecting (see related story). Inventories now stand at 3,246 Bcf and are 150 Bcf greater than last year and 169 Bcf below the five-year average.

WSI’s temperature forecast map is mostly unchanged for March, although the northern portion of the Northeast can expect to be warmer than normal heading into early Spring.

“Colder-than-normal temperatures in the Midwest and Gulf states should be offset by warmer-than-normal temperatures elsewhere to keep natural gas prices under wraps in March,” Kostas said. “Heating demand typically fades quickly during the second half of the month and should help to keep monthly average gas prices subdued in most regions. We expect daily Marcellus gas prices will turn negative by the end of the month at many Midwest delivery points even if monthly average temperatures are slightly colder than normal in the region.”

Most forecasters aren’t expecting conditions this winter to match the unusually cold stretches of 2013-2014 (see Daily GPI, Oct. 16). National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s forecasters have said a repeat of last year’s extremely cold, snowy winter east of the Rockies isn’t likely. They expect below-average temperatures to dominate parts of the South Central and Southeast United States this winter, while above-average temperatures are most likely in New England, the West, Alaska and Hawaii.