From Climate Central's Andrew Freedman:

The upcoming winter is likely to be a mild and dry one for the West and the Upper Midwest, while parts of the Southeast may see cooler and wetter than average conditions, according to the official U.S. winter outlook issued Thursday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In making its seasonal prediction, forecasters cautioned that there are large portions of the country for which there are no clear indications whether it will be a warmer, colder, wetter, or drier than average winter, largely due to a fickle El Niño event that may have petered out too early to have much of an impact on North American winter weather.

Given that the majority of the Lower 48 states are still mired in a major drought, with the latest drought monitor showing a continuous swath of drought stretching from California to Illinois, the forecast offers little hope for significant relief anytime soon. In fact, Mike Halpert, the deputy director of NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center in College Park, Md., said the drought is likely to expand from the Upper Midwest to the Pacific Northwest, and may also intensify all along the West Coast.

us winter outlook 2012

Winter precipitation outlook for the U.S. "EC" means equal chances of below average, average, or above average precipitation. Credit: NOAA/CPC.

“My biggest concern this year is really the West Coast,” Halpert said, noting that most of the computer models used to guide forecasters consistently show that this region will experience a dry winter.

During the summer and early fall it appeared that an El Niño event, which is characterized by warmer-than-average water temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean, was developing. Such events can have significant impacts on North American winters, because they tend to favor particular weather patterns, and are known to help reconfigure the jet stream, which is a high altitude river of air that helps steer storm systems and establish boundaries between air masses.

In recent weeks, though, water temperatures have cooled in the tropical Pacific, and there are fewer signs of El Niño, Halpert said. The winter weather outlook incorporates the possibility that El Niño will stage a comeback, but it’s apparent collapse threw a wrench in the forecasting process.

“This year’s winter outlook has proven to be quite challenging largely due to an indecisive El Niño,” Halpert said. The demise of El Niño stands out when looking at the historical record that stretches back 60 years. During that time there has never been a similar case in which water temperatures warmed so much during August, and yet El Niño conditions failed to take hold, Halpert said.

“When we reach a certain threshold by August, in September we have always proceeded right into El Niño,” he said.

winter outlook 2012

Winter temperature outlook for the U.S. "EC" means equal chances of below average, average, or above average temperatures. Credit: NOAA/CPC.

Because of the lack of a clear El Niño signal, as well as the potential influence of other climate cycles, there is a large swath of the eastern U.S. where NOAA’s outlook lacks specificity. According to the outlook, the East (with the exception of Florida, which is forecast to be wetter and cooler than average) has equal chances of seeing below-average, average, or above-average temperatures and precipitation.

While it can be affected by El Niño, snowfall in the Northeast, for example, is also closely linked to the Arctic Oscillation, which is an atmospheric pressure pattern over the North Atlantic that can vary from one week to the next. During the winters of 2009-10 and 2010-11 the Arctic Oscillation was often in an extremely “negative” phase, which helped drive cold and snow into the Northeast, contributing to the famous “Snowmageddon” storm of February 2010, for example.

Forecasters lack the ability to predict its behavior more than two weeks in advance. “It is obviously critical for making an accurate winter forecast . . . but right now it’s got us stumped,” Halpert said of the Arctic Oscillation.

Recent research has suggested that the abrupt decline in Arctic sea ice may influence the Arctic Oscillation, and could paradoxically raise the odds of colder, snowier winters in the U.S. and Europe.

“It might be one piece of the puzzle . . . my own thought is there’s probably multiple pieces to put this all together,” Halpert said, regarding the sea ice research findings.

This summer, Arctic sea ice plummeted to a record low, breaking the record established in 2007. The ice loss means that Alaska may see milder-than-average conditions during this upcoming winter. In fact, the highest odds for above-average temperatures anywhere in the country can be found in northern Alaska, due to the absence of sea ice offshore of the North Slope.

“Right now there is no ice at all there. We would certainly expect the early winter to be above average [temperature-wise],” Halpert said.

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  • In this Dec. 28, 2012 photo, corn stalks stand in a snowy field near La Vista, Neb. Despite getting some big storms in December, much of the U.S. is still desperate for relief from the nation’s longest dry spell in decades. And experts say it will take an absurd amount of snow to ease the woes of farmers and ranchers. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

  • In this Dec. 28, 2012 photo, Bales of corn stalks are covered with a dusting of snow near La Vista, Neb. Despite getting some big storms in December, much of the U.S. is still desperate for relief from the nation’s longest dry spell in decades. And experts say it will take an absurd amount of snow to ease the woes of farmers and ranchers. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

  • Severe Drought Threatens Midwest Corn Crops

    PRINCETON, IN - JULY 17: Drought-damaged corn grows in a field on July 17, 2012 near Princeton, Indiana. The corn and soybean belt in the middle of the nation is experiencing one of the worst droughts in more than five decades. Indiana was the nation's fourth largest corn producer in 2011. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

  • Severe Drought Threatens Midwest Corn Crops

    FRITCHTON, IN - JULY 17: Corn plants dry in a drought-stricken farm field on July 17, 2012 near Fritchton, Indiana. The corn and soybean belt in the middle of the nation is experiencing one of the worst droughts in more than five decades. Indiana was the nation's fourth largest corn producer in 2011. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

  • In this July 26, 2012 photo, dead fish float in a drying pond near Rock Port, Mo., as a turkey vulture paces the shore. Multitudes of fish are dying in the Midwest as the sizzling summer dries up rivers and raises water temperatures in some spots to nearly 100 degrees. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

  • Severe Midwest Drought Continues

    WYATT, MO - JULY 18: A buoy used to help guide barges rests on the bank after the water level dropped on the Mississippi River July 18, 2012 near Wyatt, Missouri. Some barge operators have lightened their loads or stopped running altogether on the lower Mississippi because of low water levels. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

  • Midwest Farmers Continue To Struggle Against Extended Drought

    CUBA, IL - AUGUST 03: Grass, dried from heat and drought, struggles to survive in a cattle pasture August 3, 2012 near Cuba, Illinois. Cattle being raised in the pasture used to be self-sustaining. This summer's drought has forced the farmer to truck in water, after the pond dried up, and extra feed, to supplement the dry grass, from another farm nearly 20 miles away. Farmers in the Midwest and elsewhere continue to struggle after than half the counties in the United States have been designated disaster areas, mostly due to drought conditions throughout the Midwest. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

  • Midwest Farmers Continue To Struggle Against Extended Drought

    NEW HARMONY, IN - AUGUST 03: Corn dead from drought sits in a field August 4, 2012 near New Harmony, Indiana. More than half of the counties in the United States have been designated disaster areas, mostly due to drought conditions throughout the Midwest. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

  • The last remaining water in a drought-stricken rural pond reflects the sky and clouds near Calumet, Okla., Friday, July 20, 2012. The nation's widest drought in decades is spreading. More than half of the continental U.S. is now in some stage of drought. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

  • Cattle graze in a dry field near Calumet, Okla., Friday, July 20, 2012. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

  • Rows of corn stalks stand under a cloudless sky south of Blair, Neb., Monday, July 23, 2012. The drought-damaged field was cut down for silage. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

  • Central Illinois cattle stand in a pasture struggling from lack of rain and a heat wave covering most of the country, Friday, July 20, 2012, in Farmingdale, Ill. The nation's widest drought in decades is spreading. More than half of the continental U.S. is now in some stage of drought, and most of the rest is abnormally dry. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

  • In this July 19, 2012 photo, a herd of cattle belonging to Kendal Grecian drink from a water tank at his ranch in Palco, Kan. Grecian spent years meticulously breeding his cows to improve the genetics in each generation, but with Kansas in one of the worst droughts seen in decades, he's struggling to find enough grazing to feed 300 cows, plus their calves. He hopes to get by with selling only a quarter of his herd, but there are no guarantees with the drought expected to linger through October. (AP Photo/John L. Mone)

  • A field of corn withers under triple-degree heat north of Wichita, Kan., in Sedgwick County Monday, July 16, 2012. The drought gripping the United States is the widest since 1956, according to new data released Monday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Fifty-five percent of the continental U.S. was in a moderate to extreme drought by the end of June, NOAA's National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C., said in its monthly State of the Climate drought report. That's the largest percentage since December 1956, when 58 percent of the country was covered by drought. (AP Photo/The Wichita Eagle, Mike Hutmacher)

  • Boats sit on the bottom in a dry cove at Morse Reservoir in Noblesville, Ind., Monday, July 16, 2012. The reservoir is down nearly 6 feet from normal levels and being lowered 1 foot every five days to provide water for Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

  • A Great White Egret looks for food on a lake drying up from lack of rain Saturday, July 21, 2012 in Chandlerville, Ill. Wildlife as well as livestock, and crops are struggling from the dry weather and a heat wave covering most of the country. The nation's widest drought in decades is spreading. More than half of the continental U.S. is now in some stage of drought, and most of the rest is abnormally dry. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

  • Boats sit on the dry, cracked bottom in a dry cove at Morse Reservoir in Noblesville, Ind., Monday, July 16, 2012. The reservoir is down nearly 6 feet from normal levels and being lowered 1 foot every five days to provide water for Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

  • A cow looks for something to eat as it grazes in a dry pasture southwest of Hays, Kan., in a July 6, 2012 photo. The nation's widest drought in decades is spreading. More than half of the continental U.S. is now in some stage of drought, and most of the rest is abnormally dry. (AP Photo/The Hays Daily News, Steven Hausler)

  • Corn stalks struggling from lack of rain and a heat wave covering most of the country lie flat on the ground Monday, July 16, 2012, in Farmingdale, Ill. The nation's widest drought in decades is spreading. More than half of the continental U.S. is now in some stage of drought, and most of the rest is abnormally dry. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

  • The gate is closed on a boat ramp leading to a dry cove at Morse Reservoir in Noblesville, Ind., Monday, July 16, 2012. The reservoir is down nearly 6 feet from normal levels and being lowered 1 foot every five days to provide water for Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

  • Farmer Joe Fischer holds ears of corn showing the variety of kernal development Thursday, July 12, 2012, at Fischer Farms Inc. in Owensboro, Ky. Normally the silks would already be brown, Fischer said. "There is no pollen left because the silks were delayed. . . because it has been too hot and dry," Fischer said. All five Owensboro-area counties have been designated primary disaster areas because of drought. (AP Photo/The Messenger-Inquirer, John Dunham)

  • Devin Davis of Paul Tree Farms uses a special water canon to water 30,000 trees on the 60 acre farm Saturday, July 21, 2012 in Pleasant Plains, Ill. The trees as well as livestock, wildlife and crops are struggling from lack of rain and a heat wave covering most of the country. The nation's widest drought in decades is spreading. More than half of the continental U.S. is now in some stage of drought, and most of the rest is abnormally dry. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

  • A pontoon is anchored on a mud flat as the owner could not reach their dock at Morse Reservoir in Noblesville, Ind., Monday, July 16, 2012. The reservoir is down nearly 6 feet from normal levels and being lowered 1 foot every five days to provide water for Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

  • This Thursday, July 5, 2012 photo shows dry soil in a corn field in western Kentucky. Persisting drought conditions have endangered corn fields in western Kentucky. (AP Photo/The Paducah Sun, Allie Douglass)

  • Illinois Farms Hurt By Continued Midwest Drought

    OLMSTED, IL - JULY 26: A corn plant grows in a field parched by drought on July 26, 2012 near Olmsted, Illinois. The field, farmed by Kevin Ulrich, was one of several in the drought stricken region of Southern Illinois that were visited by officials from the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Farm and Foreign Agriculture Services (FFAS) department and Farm Service Agency (FSA). Seventy percent of Illinois, the nation's number two corn producing state, is classified as experiencing some level of drought.(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

  • Burnt stalks lie on the ground among rows of corn damaged by drought in a parched field in Louisville, Ill. on Monday, July 16, 2012. Over ten days of triple digit temperatures with little rain in the past two months is forcing many farmers to call 2012 a total loss. Rows of corn sit under high temperatures, burning and crisping until the stalks eventually fall, burning into the dry soil. (AP Photo/Robert Ray)

  • Four rows of corn left for insurance adjusters to examine are all that remain of a 40-acre cornfield in Geff, Ill. that was mowed down Monday, July 16, 2012. Over ten days of triple digit temperatures with little rain in the past two months is forcing many farmers to call 2012 a total loss. (AP Photo/Robert Ray)

  • Jack Maloney checks on corn on his farm in Brownsburg, Ind., Monday, July 16, 2012. With no significant rainfall since May 3 and the bleak outlook for rain, Maloney expects a total loss on his corn and soybean crop. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

  • A dry field of corn is seen near Fremont, Neb., Monday, July 16, 2012. The drought gripping the United States is the widest since 1956, according to new data released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

  • Jack Maloney displays a drought-damaged ear of corn on his farm in Brownsburg, Ind., Monday, July 16, 2012. With no significant rainfall since May 3 and the bleak outlook for rain, Maloney expects a total loss on his corn and soybean crop. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

  • An empty dock sits on the bottom of a dry cove at Morse Reservoir in Noblesville, Ind., Monday, July 16, 2012. The reservoir is down nearly 6 feet from normal levels and being lowered 1 foot every five days to provide water for Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

  • Leaves become dry and brittle on stalks of corn in a parched field outside Effingham, Ill., Monday, July 16, 2012. The drought gripping the United States is the widest since 1956, according to new data released Monday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This summer, 80 percent of the U.S. is abnormally dry, and the report said the drought expanded in the West, Great Plains and Midwest last month with the 14th warmest and 10th driest June on record. (AP Photo/Robert Ray)

  • A dry field of corn is seen near Fremont, Neb., Monday, July 16, 2012. The drought gripping the United States is the widest since 1956, according to new data released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

  • The sun rises Sunday, July 15, 2012, in Pleasant Plains, Ill. Corn stalks are struggling in the heat and continuing drought that has overcome most of the country. All of Illinois is officially in a drought, and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn plans a trip to southern Illinois to discuss the state's plans for responding to dry conditions. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

  • Joe Fischer checks on his corn field Thursday, July 12, 2012, at Fischer Farms Inc. in the 3700 block of Fisher Road in Owensboro, Ky. "We've been in a drought for the last three weeks," he said. Fischer farms the property with his brother Tony Fischer. They planted 900 acres of corn with 30,000 plants per acre. "We have no idea what our yield will be," Joe Fischer said. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has designated 26 Kentucky counties among more than 900 counties in 29 states as disaster areas. (AP Photo/Messenger-Inquirer, John Dunham)

  • In this photo taken June 27, 2012, farm worker Juan Carlos walks to an irrigated soybean field near England, Ark. The U.S. Agriculture Department has granted a disaster declaration for 69 of Arkansas' 75 counties due to the drought. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

  • Midwest Farmers Continue To Struggle Against Extended Drought

    CUBA, IL - AUGUST 03: Cattle try to keep cool in the remains of a farm pond in a pasture heavily damaged by drought August 3, 2012 near Cuba, Illinois. Farmers in the Midwest and elsewhere continue to struggle after than half the counties in the United States have been designated disaster areas, mostly due to drought conditions throughout the Midwest. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

  • Midwest Farmers Continue To Struggle Against Extended Drought

    CUBA, IL - AUGUST 03: Cattle nibble the remains of grass in a pasture heavily damaged by drought August 3, 2012 near Cuba, Illinois. Farmers in the Midwest and elsewhere continue to struggle after than half the counties in the United States have been designated disaster areas, mostly due to drought conditions throughout the Midwest. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

  • Steve Niedbalski chops down his drought and heat stricken corn for feed Wednesday, July 11, 2012 in Nashville Ill. Farmers in parts of the Midwest are dealing with the worst drought in nearly 25 years. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

  • Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, second left, peels away the husk of a drought-ravaged ear of corn, only to find it had no kernels, as Illinois Farm Bureau President Philip Nelson, right, looks on during visit to the Laird Family Farm in Waltonville, Ill. on Monday, July 16, 2012. Quinn says the state will offer an array of debt restructuring and loan programs to farmers and ranchers affected by the drought. Drought is affecting much of the Midwest, where almost a third of the nation's corn crop has been damaged by heat and drought so severe that some farmers have cut down crops midway through the growing season. (AP Photo/Jim Suhr)

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    WYATT, MO - JULY 18: Corn plants struggle to survive in a drought-stricken farm field on July 18, 2012 near Wyatt, Missouri. The corn and soybean belt in the middle of the nation is experiencing one of the worst droughts in more than five decades. All 114 of Missouri's counties have received disaster designations because of drought. Last year this area, which sits across the Mississippi River from Illinois, was ravaged by flooding after the Army Corps of Engineers blasted a hole in a levee to save the town of Cairo, Illinois from the rising Mississippi. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

  • Severe Midwest Drought Continues

    VINCENNES, IN - JULY 18: Corn plants struggle to survive in a drought-stricken farm field on July 18, 2012 near Vincennes, Indiana. The corn and soybean belt in the middle of the nation is experiencing one of the worst droughts in more than five decades. Indiana was the nation's fourth largest corn producer in 2011. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

  • In this July 26, 2012 photo, dead fish decompose in a drying pond near Rock Port, Mo. Multitudes of fish are dying in the Midwest as the sizzling summer dries up rivers and raises water temperatures in some spots to nearly 100 degrees. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

  • This photo from July 31, 2012 shows a beached air boat as bathers walk in the nearly dry Platte River near Yutan, Neb., Tuesday, July 31, 2012. The latest U.S. Drought Monitor survey shows an increase in extreme drought conditions in four Plains states but a slight decrease in the overall area of the lower 48 states experiencing some form of drought. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)


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