Colder, Longer Winter Ahead -- Along With Steeper Heating Costs

The U.S. winter will be longer and slightly colder than the last, private forecasters say, spelling a spike in heating oil and natural gas demand even as high oil prices drive up the cost of heating.

Predictions of natural gas use range from a rise of 5 percent to as much as 15 percent, based on the longer duration of winter and chillier temperatures, and not taking into account economic or other considerations, such as high crude oil prices that could stay stubbornly above $40.

The Energy Information Administration (search) — the research arm of the Department of Energy (search) — has said it expects the average monthly price for U.S. oil to stay above $40 a barrel through the middle of next year.

EIA forecasts U.S. consumers will pay an estimated 15 percent more for heating their homes with natural gas and about six percent more for using heating oil because crude oil prices have gained over 30 percent since the beginning of the year.

Weather experts liken this year's winter to the one of 2002-2003.

Six forecasters surveyed by Reuters agree this winter will be colder, adding that the Northeast and Midwest will not see the deep freeze experienced last January. One predicts the impact of warm waters now off Japan — seen in the three typhoons hitting that country in the last three weeks — could bring extreme volatility to this winter in the United States.

"This could be the winter from hell," said Cliff Harris of Harris-Mann Climatology (search) in Idaho, who sees natural gas use increasing 10 to 15 percent and Northeastern heating oil use rising as high as 30 percent.

Harris cautions it's too early to say whether weather in the United States will actually see the huge temperature swings he says are possible if the warm waters in the Sea of Japan make their way to the Gulf of Alaska over the next month and eventually impact U.S. airmasses, or ridges.

Chris Hyde of EarthSat forecasters in Maryland said that a weak El Nino (search) will make for a colder winter this year and more use of natural gas and heating oil. He characterizes winter for energy use as November through March.

Natural gas heating degree days are predicted to be 1.5 percent above normal this year, Hyde said. They were 3.8 percent below normal last winter, he added. National natural gas-weighted heating degree days is about 39,000. Hyde said.

Agbeli Ameko, managing partner for Evercast Inc. in Denver, Colorado says he see little impact from El Nino this year.

He and Hyde, among other forecasters, say the El Nino phenomenon will be weak this year because waters off Ecuador and Peru are not as warm as they have been in years with a strong El Nino effect.

El Nino became to mean the warm air masses off Ecuador and Peru in the 19th Century because its impact begins near Christmas in December.

Two forecasters, including Joe Bastardi of AccuWeather in State College, Pa., said they were not ready to issue formal winter forecasts, but agree this winter will be colder.

The other, Todd Crawford, senior meteorologist with WSI Corp in Massachusetts, says his official winter forecast will be out in October, but adds: "The current conditions in the atmosphere and the oceans looks a lot like they did in 2002, which was a very long, cold, snowy winter in the East."

The Farmer's Almanac (search) — which began forecasting weather in 1818 — predicts a winter of extremes, with the Northeast having a mild January and major snowstorms near Christmas and in February.