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A mild start to winter?

Jeff Caldwell 10/03/2012 @ 8:01am Multimedia Editor for Agriculture.com and Successful Farming magazine.

Don't dig out the union suits and long johns just yet.

A new winter outlook shows warmer-than-normal temperatures in much of the Midwest and northern Plains through November. Then, things really warm up in December, with a region from eastern Montana south to central Missouri and east to Ohio likely to see the "warmest anomalies" of the winter.

It likely won't be as warm, start-to-finish, as last winter, but the first part of the season will see temperatures at least 3 degrees warmer than normal on average, according to MDA EarthSat Weather senior ag meteorologist Don Keeney.

"Even with warmer risks considered it would be difficult to repeat last winter's record warmth," Keeney says. "By month, December should see the strongest, most widespread warm anomalies, with the greatest threats for persistent cold holding off until later in the winter season."

The outlook's based on a few factors, the main one being a weak/moderate El Niño system. But, the signals that weather phenomenon is sending aren't as clear as they normally are.

"Historically, weak El Niños tend to be colder than our current forecast, but the ENSO [El Nino-Southern Oscillation] signal has struggled to match well with the pattern the past few seasons, and has more recently come into question as some cooling has taken place within the tropical Pacific," Keeney says.

Things will likely cool back down to at or below seasonal levels later in the season, with more "cooler anomalies" pacing the outlook by February.

Not all are as certain about how the expected trends will manifest themselves. Indiana state climatologist Dev Niyogi says it's simply too early to tell, especially considering how much the weather's departed from "normal" in the last year.

"Recently, we have seen unusual seasonal patterns: the very early start to spring, hot summer and historic drought," Niyogi says in a university report. "What climatology tells us alone will not be the final answer to this winter. My best advice at this stage would be to wait and watch. Sometimes the signals are just not strong enough to make any confident projections -- and during a transition such as we are going through with a likely El Niño, change is in the air. We just don't know which way and how far off from normal the weather will be."

One thing that's certain is the variability will likely continue through the winter, he adds.

"One month could be warmer than normal and the following colder," Niyogi says. "This high variability will be key as we move into winter this year. So it's probably going to be more like a little bit of everything this time around."

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