New York may be warmer than L.A. on Christmas, partly due to El Nino

SEATTLE -- A weather pattern partly linked with El Nino has turned winter upside-down across the U.S. during a week of heavy holiday travel, bringing spring-like warmth to the Northeast, a risk of tornadoes in the South and so much snow across the West that even skiing slopes have been overwhelmed.

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In a reversal of a typical Christmas, forecasters expect New York to be in the mid-60s Fahrenheit (upper teens Celsius) on the holiday -- several degrees higher than Los Angeles.

The mild conditions have helped golf courses in the northeastern New England states do brisk business, but the pattern comes at a steep cost for ski resorts that have closed and for backcountry skiers who confront avalanche risks. And many Americans complain that it just doesn't feel like the holidays without a chill in the air.

"It's been a great snow season so far from the Rockies to the higher elevations in the Cascades and the northern Sierras, and it's been the total opposite on the East Coast," said Bob Oravec, lead forecaster with the National Weather Service.

Big parts of the county are basking in above-average temperatures, especially east of the Mississippi and across the Northern Plains. Record warmth was expected on Christmas Eve along the East Coast, Oravec said.

He laid the credit -- or blame -- with a strong El Nino pattern, the warming of surface waters in the Pacific Ocean near the equator. That's helped drive warm air west to east across the Lower 48 states and kept colder air from the Arctic at bay, he said.

In the Pacific Northwest and California, the effects of El Nino haven't really hit yet. They're typically seen in January through March, and the heavy rains and snows in the region are probably not linked to the phenomenon, said Washington State Climatologist Nick Bond.

The winter in the Pacific Northwest is still predicted to be drier than normal, so the series of storms that dumped feet of snow in the Cascades this month and piled the snowpack back above normal, were helpful, he said.

Come summer, farmers and salmon alike will rely on that melting snow.

In Washington state, authorities have closed the main east-west route, Interstate 90, over the Cascade Mountains repeatedly this week due to heavy snows and avalanche danger. On Sunday, a heavy storm closed Oregon's Mount Ashland Ski Area when it knocked out power.

California is in its driest four-year span on record, and experts anticipate a possible fifth year of drought. Weather forecasters say a strong El Nino weather system could drench the state, but one good, wet winter won't be enough to rehydrate the parched land.

While ski resorts celebrated a deluge that threatened to drop almost 2 feet (60 centimetres) of snow in parts of Colorado's mountains, forecasters warned of serious avalanche risks.

An avalanche near the Montana-Wyoming state line on Sunday buried three snowmobilers, killing a 33-year-old North Dakota man. Another avalanche partially buried a ski patrol employee at the Snowbasin resort, about 45 miles (72 kilometres) north of Salt Lake City, and two snowboarders were caught in a backcountry slide southwest of Breckenridge Ski Area on Saturday. They escaped serious injury.

"We're giving our generally weak snowpack a very large and rapid load, and it's unlikely to be able to hold up," said Brian Lazar, deputy director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. Warnings and advisories were posted for much of Colorado's high country.

Elsewhere, severe thunderstorms and possible tornadoes were forecast for Wednesday in Arkansas, northern Alabama, northern Mississippi and western Tennessee. Tornadoes are not unheard-of in the region in late December, but the extreme weather, driven by warm temperatures and large amounts of moisture in the atmosphere, was nonetheless striking, said Jeff Masters, director of meteorology at Weather Underground.

In addition to El Nino, a weather pattern called the North Atlantic Oscillation is also helping keep cold air bottled up in the Arctic. Combine that with warm temperatures around the planet from man-made global warming, he said, and you have a recipe for intense weather.

Not everyone welcomed the warmth.

Astrid Rau, 55, of Perkasie, Pennsylvania, baked 16 kinds of Christmas cookies, but with the temperature expected to reach 72 F (22 C) on Thursday, she had trouble getting in the holiday spirit.

"I associate cold with Christmas," she said. "And if it's warm it just doesn't feel quite right to me."


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