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Natural Gas Consumption Climbs in Frozen East, Slides in Western Warmth

While natural gas consumption has remained relatively steady across the nation from the start of the new year to late February, there has been a noticeable difference between the eastern and western United States due to the ongoing deep freeze in the East and warmth surging across the West.

The frigid air that has gripped much of the eastern U.S. from Jan. 1 to Feb. 20 helped to boost natural gas consumption 4 percent over last year for the Northeast, Southeast and Midwest, according to a recent update from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

"Since the start of the year, record cold temperatures and significant snowfall have occurred in the eastern half of the country," the administration reported. "Long-standing temperature records tumbled east of the Rockies, and cumulative heating degree days from Jan. 1 through Feb. 20 equaled 2,220, 11 percent more than normal."

A heating degree day is a measure of how cold a location is over a period of time relative to a base temperature, most commonly 65 F.

In order to determine the average for the day, the sum of the maximum temperature and lowest temperature of the day is divided by two and compared to the base temperature, AccuWeather.com Meteorologist Dave Dombek said.

Heating degree days are used in energy analysis as an indicator of space heating energy requirements or use, according to the administration.

Though it is unusual for a polar vortex to play a major role in two consecutive winters, the polar vortex has had a greater influence than usual for the 2014-15 winter season, bringing record cold to the Midwest and East yet again.

A polar vortex is a large pocket of very cold air, which sits over the polar region much of the winter but is occasionally pushed down into Canada and the U.S.

Due to the increased arctic air, record low temperatures were shattered in Chicago, New York City and from Washington, D.C., to Orlando, Florida, this year. AccuWeather's winter forecast, which was released in October, pinpointed the return of brutal cold for these areas months in advance.

In addition to natural gas consumption, propane and heating oil has seen increases in demand and price in portions of the eastern U.S. during the same time period, according to a separate EIA report.

The polar vortex played a role in several key events this winter, including the late-January blizzard that impacted much of New England and the severe cold prevalent throughout the Northeast in February.

While residents in the East battled against the arctic chill and relentless snow and ice, much of the western U.S. saw warmer weather than usual.

Areas of the Pacific Northwest had the early signs of spring in late February as cherry blossoms began to bloom weeks early in parts of Vancouver, British Columbia, and Seattle.

"Seven states have reported average temperatures for the month of January in the top 10 warmest on record, with cumulative [heating degree days] since the beginning of the year totaling 922, 25 percent under normal," the EIA reported.

The states include California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

"A large ridge of high pressure along the West Coast has kept all polar and arctic air well to the east of the Northwest," AccuWeather.com Western Weather Expert Ken Clark said. "This has brought some incredibly warm temperatures this month of February."

Natural gas consumption was also down by 9 percent compared to last year for the Northwest, Southwest and Rockies, the EIA reported.

The West Coast has suffered in a different way this winter, with a significant dry period in the middle of winter book-ended by stormier weather.

As of late February, the U.S. Drought Monitor indicated levels of "exceptional drought," or the most severe type of drought indicator, throughout much of the West and California.

Because the polar vortex became stronger and moved farther south in late January, it caused cold to intensify in the Midwest and East and drought to build in California and the West.

"The Southwest and California have had mild temperatures and some rain in December and February, though not enough to make a major difference in the drought," AccuWeather Lead Long-Range Forecaster Paul Pastelok said.