October 12, 2005

Midwest, Northeast winter weather a mystery: Govt

By Christopher Doering

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Americans are bracing for sharply
higher heating costs this winter but government forecasters
said on Wednesday they could not predict if the
energy-dependent U.S. Northeast and Midwest regions will face
warmer, colder or typical winter temperatures.

The weather forecast is more important than usual with U.S.
oil and natural gas production still crippled in the Gulf of
Mexico from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

"This has been one of the more challenging outlooks we've
had to put together" in recent years, said Mike Halpert, head
of forecast operations at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration's Climate Prediction Center.

NOAA's winter outlook, which covers December through
February, forecast equal chances of warmer, cooler, or
near-normal temperatures in the Midwest and East Coast.

However, much of the rest of the nation west of the
Mississippi River will enjoy warmer-than-normal temperatures.
That includes the normally frigid Dakotas, extending south
through Kansas and into northern Texas.

"Even though the average temperature over the 3-month
winter season is forecast to be above normal in much of the
country, there will still be bouts of winter weather with cold
temperatures and frozen precipitation," said NOAA Administrator
Conrad Lautenbacher.

Energy traders had eagerly awaited NOAA's winter forecast
as they assessed oil and natural gas production shortfalls in
the Gulf of Mexico from recent hurricanes. The U.S. Midwest
depends mostly on natural gas for home heating, while the
Northeast primarily uses heating oil.

NOAA's forecast was released at the same time as the U.S.
Energy Information Administration's winter energy outlook,
which warned consumers that prices will rise for all major home
heating fuels.

For example, Midwest homes using natural gas can expect a
nearly 62 percent jump in winter bills to an average $1,377,
the EIA said. Northeastern households, which depend mostly on
heating oil, will spend nearly 30 percent more for winter
heating, or an average $1,607, the EIA said.

However, if winter temperatures turn out to be colder than
expected, those bills could soar by 85 percent and 56 percent,

"We're looking at a slightly colder winter in 2005-06"
compared to last year's warmer-than-normal season, said EIA
Administrator Guy Caruso.

NOAA said part of the difficulty in forecasting the weather
this winter was the absence of El Nino and La Nina. These
weather anomalies can wreak havoc with global weather patterns,
but they allow for more stable weather outlooks.

While NOAA said it could not predict winter temperatures in
the Northeast, some private weather forecasters said they
expect the winter to be colder than normal.

AccuWeather estimated on Tuesday that temperatures in the
Northeast could be as much as 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit colder
than normal, while most other U.S. regions will have
above-normal temperatures.

"We don't want to get into battles with the private
sector," said NOAA's Halpert. "Their forecasts for last winter
were also cold in the Northeast and the East Coast and we saw
temperatures that were normal or slightly above normal."

The government's weather forecasting arm also said in its
outlook that drought remains a concern in the U.S. Northwest
and northern Rockies. While plentiful mountain snowfall could
help, NOAA cautioned it would take a number of "significant"
winter snowstorms to end the drought in the two areas.

As winter approaches, about 20 percent of the country is
mired in some level of drought, most of it in the northwestern
United States, compared to about 30 percent at this time in
2004, according to a government drought report.

Most of the United States has an equal chance of above,
below or near-normal snow or rain this winter, NOAA said.