Blame it on El Nino.
Winter likely will blow colder than normal along most of the East Coast and in Maryland -- if El Nino, a warming of ocean waters in the tropical Pacific, occurs as expected by government meteorologists.
The predictions of a cold winter for the eastern United States, and generally mild conditions west of the Mississippi, are contained in the 90-day winter outlook issued yesterday by the Department of Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
How likely is this cold weather?
"Around 63 percent probability for colder than normal in Maryland," said Anthony G. Barnston, a meteorologist in NOAA's National Weather
Service Climate Analysis Center based in Camp Springs.
According to Mr. Barnston, statistics show a correlation between winter weather in North America and the phenomenon of ocean warming in the Pacific.
The news that the annual 90-day forecast calls for sub-normal temperatures sent a shiver through the Northeast, where home
prices have risen steadily since the crisis in the Persian Gulf began in August.
"All I can say is, 'Uh-oh,' " said Gary Scheffer, spokesman for the New York State Energy office. "Our surveys show we're already entering the heating season with near-record prices for heating oil, so if this cold weather arrives, it will only compound the problem and exacerbate the hardship."
Most of Florida was exempted from the colder-than-normal prediction, while the forecasters say the chances for "excessively cold weather" are as high as 70 percent in an area centered over the southern Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina and Virginia.
The climate analyzers were less certain about Maryland in their 30-day outlook for December. That forecast, also issued yesterday, called for a 55 percent probability of below-normal temperatures affecting "Atlantic coastal states north of Delaware," and the same probability for warmer-than-normal conditions over the Southeast and South.
In the 30-day temperature outlook, Maryland is "right smack dab" in the middle, a 50-50 coin flip on colder or warmer than normal for December, said Amet Figueroa, a weather service meteorologist based at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
Maryland is more likely to have a wetter-than-normal December -- with a 55 percent probability, Mr. Figueroa said.
The long-range winter forecasts came as temperatures were rising to record levels in Maryland yesterday. Temperatures reached 72 in Baltimore about 6 p.m., matching the record for the date set on Nov. 28, 1973.
The mercury reached 73 at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, exceeding the record of 70 recorded there in 1970.
While the long-range outlook for cold was based on temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, yesterday's heat was due to conditions "almost like a Bermuda high" off the Middle Atlantic coast, Mr. Figueroa said.
"This is almost like a summertime situation where we have a string of high pressure systems off the coast, which in the summertime we call a Bermuda high. This is a kind of a semipermanent situation in the summertime, not in the wintertime," he said.
But the resulting flow of unseasonably warm air from the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean was expected to vanish today, as winds of 15 to 25 mph mark a transition to sharply colder conditions.
By tonight, Mr. Figueroa said, "we're talking freezing, 30 degrees -- plus or minus a few degrees."
"We're really getting back to a more normal situation, but because of what we've had in the last week it will feel very abrupt," he said. "It will feel colder than it actually is because unfortunately we're not going into a gradual decline. We're going from one extreme almost into another, and the wind will add to that."
The 90-day forecast also will mark a climatic change.
"Overall in 1990 there's been a warming spell. . . . This [prediction] is breaking that spell," said Robert Livezey, head of the predictions branch in the Climate Analysis Center.
The winter forecast predicts temperatures an average of one or two degrees below normal -- but the average can include periods of intense cold, Mr. Livezey said.
California and Arizona have the greatest chance of unusually mild winter weather, while most other states west of the Mississippi are targeted for above normal temperatures.