The Long-Range Forecasting Team still expects a stormy winter for the U.S. with the worst in terms of snow and cold targeting the Midwest and interior Northwest. Big Midwestern cities, such as Chicago and Minneapolis, will lie in the heart of this zone. While the worst of winter will be focused over the Midwest and Northwest, it does not mean other parts of the country are off the hook.

Above-normal snowfall is also forecast for the interior Northeast and northern New England. A region-by-region breakdown is given after the following discussion on factors behind the forecast.

Factors Behind the Forecast

A weak to moderate La Niña is a key factor in the 2011-2012 Winter Forecast. “La Niña, a phenomenon that occurs when sea surface temperatures across the equatorial central and eastern Pacific are below normal, is what made last year’s winter so awful for the Midwest and Northeast,” Meteorologist Heather Buchman stated in the initial release of the 2011-2012 Winter Forecast.

La Niña winters feature a stronger northern jet stream, an area of strong winds high above the Earth’s surface. This positioning and strength of the jet stream over the northern portion of North America tends to cause storms to track across the northern tier of the U.S., spelling harsh winters from the northern Plains to the Ohio Valley. Typically, the southern tier of the U.S. ends up mild and dry during a La Niña winter. However, there will be some exceptions this year with wet weather anticipated for parts of the Lower Mississippi Valley.

Another big factor in the winter forecast is the potential for a blocking pattern to develop with the NAO, or North Atlantic Oscillation, possibly turning negative for a time. This essentially means that a large area of high pressure could set up over Greenland, forcing cold blasts to reach the eastern U.S. “The lack of sea ice has been believed to contribute to the development of blocking. This past summer and early fall, sea ice reached near-record low levels,” according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Winter Still Looking Brutal for the Midwest

Paul Pastelok, expert long-range meteorologist and leader of the Long-Range Forecasting Team, still thinks Old Man Winter will leave the biggest impression on the northern Rockies, northern Plains and Midwest. It will be a snowier-than-usual season for the Midwest, which will lie to the north and west of the frequent storm track, or in the “sweet spot” of the storms. Typical of a La Niña year, the harshest cold will blast the northern Plains and northern Rockies. Although this may be the case this season, cold air masses will sink farther south and east at times.

One thing that has changed with’s initial Winter 2011-2012 Forecast is the expectation for a cold December in the Midwest and Northeast. The frequency and period of arctic cold is lower than earlier expected. Therefore, temperatures for the winter season as a whole are predicted to average slightly higher for the Midwest and Northeast with December not being quite so cold. Minneapolis and Chicago lie in the heart of where the worst of winter is expected with above-normal snowfall and colder-than-normal conditions predicted. Cold blasts will be longer lasting from late December into January.

Snowfall will be well above normal for cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Cincinnati, Cleveland and possibly Pittsburgh. Farther south, closer to the storm track, some icing events can occur along the Ohio River on southwest into northeastern Texas. Pastelok stressed that this will be most likely during January.

Northeast Not Off the Hook

Pastelok pointed out that this winter in the Northeast will likely lack substantial rounds of long-lasting arctic cold. However, there can still be cold snaps with below-normal temperatures. Overall, temperatures are expected to average out near to slightly above normal. Snowfall amounts were bumped up into the above-normal range farther south and east across New England, following the recent historic late-October snowstorm.

In the updated forecast, near-normal lake-effect snow will fall around the eastern Great Lakes. However, snow amounts could still end up above normal in this zone from storms cutting away from the coastal Northeast. With a storm track farther north and west compared to last year, snowfall will be near to below normal for the highly populated I-95 corridor, including Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York City and Boston. Stormy weather is still expected, but there will be more events with a wintry mix or a changeover to rain.

Southeast Looking Chillier than Previously Expected

Bring out the jackets and hats, because it is looking cooler than previously thought for the interior Southeast in December. The nights will be exceptionally chilly. After December, however, temperatures are expected to climb higher in January and February, as an area of high pressure is expected to set up along the Southeast coast and pump milder air from the Gulf of Mexico northward into the region. In general, Winter 2011-2012 is expected to be milder than last winter in the Southeast. There will be a low chance for a damaging freeze in the citrus area this year.

“Florida looks drier than normal,” Pastelok said. “The farther north and west you travel, the wetter it gets.” “Watch for potential flooding in the Lower Mississippi,” warned Pastelok. An active storm track around the northern and western periphery of high pressure dominating the Southeast will allow above-normal precipitation to fall in the Lower Mississippi Valley. The severe weather season could begin picking up in the Mississippi Valley and perhaps eastern Texas and Oklahoma in February. In March, severe weather will become more likely in this zone, which was hit hard by tornadoes in the spring. “Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee, which were devastated by tornadoes in the spring, will be extremely sensitive to any severe weather outbreaks,” stated Buchman in the initial Winter 2011-2012 Forecast.

Southwest and Southern Plains Divided between Stormy and Dry

“There can be a few ice events,” Pastelok warned about northeastern Texas and the Mid- and Lower Mississippi Valley from late December to January. Elsewhere across the Southwest, dry and mild weather will rule. This is typical of a La Niña winter, where the storm track is much farther north across the U.S. Unfortunately, drier-than-normal weather will persist from the interior Southwest into southwestern Texas, an area still in desperate need of rain.

The U.S. Drought Monitor release on Nov. 22, 2011 revealed that nearly 65 percent of Texas is still being gripped by severe drought conditions and nearly 40 percent of the state is in an exceptional drought, the highest level. “The lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas and western Texas into New Mexico will run the warmest and driest for the nation through the winter season,” Pastelok said.

Winter Looking Wetter for California, Still Stormy for Northwest

The 2011-2012 Winter Forecast was updated to show even more rain and snow for northern and central California with the Pacific jet stream expected to hover over this area for most of the winter season. Farther inland, this winter is expected to be another active one for the northern Sierra and interior Northwest with above-normal snowfall forecast.

In contrast, the Pacific Northwest, including much of Washington and western Oregon, will get some breaks from the wet weather. “Watch for a ‘Pineapple Connection’ during the mid- to late season that will send some areas well-above-normal precipitation,” Pastelok said. This means “snow in the mountains and rain and mudslides in the valleys.” Also known as the “Pineapple Express,” the Pineapple Connection is a phenomenon that occurs when a strong, persistent flow of tropical moisture sets up from the Hawaiian Islands to the West Coast of the U.S. This phenomenon often leads to excessive rain and incredible snow events.

Despite the on again, off again stormy weather for the Pacific Northwest, rather than a constant storm train, the region will not be spared winter’s blow. Pastelok added that bitter cold blasts will invade northern areas, especially during the mid- to late season. After being active early in the season, there will be less precipitation in Seattle and Portland, Ore., later on. However, both of these cities could get cold for a time with arctic air penetrating from the north and east. With a storm track favoring more storms cutting across the interior, above-normal snowfall is more likely across the interior Northeast.

Before we can get excited about our “mild winter forecast,” a powerful winter storm is now developing over the Rocky Mountains, and after some pleasant weather between now and Saturday conditions will become considerably more unsettled by Sunday, when the storm blows through. The heaviest rains should come between Saturday night and Monday. Here’s the latest quantitative precipitation forecast showing rainfall accumulations on Sunday and Monday:

Most of the greater Houston area seems likely to get an inch of rain, with isolated totals of 2 or more inches of rain. It’s probably going to make for soggy tailgating outside Reliant Stadium on Sunday, however Saturday’s Cougars football game probably will remain dry, with temperatures in the 70s. The front itself should blow through some time on Sunday and as cool air filters into the region most of the greater Houston area should see near-freezing conditions by Tuesday morning.

Here’s the full forecast from Fred Schmude, of ImpactWeather:

Breezy and much cooler air associated with the cold front will move by the area on Sunday with a good chance of rain. Even colder air is expected on Monday with gusty north winds and a continued chance of rain as a secondary stronger cold front moves by the area. Temperatures are forecast to reach the low to mid 70s Thursday, Friday and Saturday followed by a quick cool-down into the 50s by Sunday.

By Monday, temperatures are forecast to remain in the 40s with thick overcast skies and periods of rain. Clearing skies and chilly weather are forecast by next Tuesday with lows falling to near freezing over a large part of the area and highs rebounding back into the upper 40s to low 50s. Milder weather is expected next Wednesday after a chilly early morning start in the 30s over most of the metro area.

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