Wacky weather linked to El Nino

SEATTLE – Astrid Rau just baked 16 kinds of Christmas cookies, including a batch in the shape of snowflakes. But she’s nevertheless having trouble getting in the holiday spirit, thanks to forecasts that have the temperature in her hometown of Perkasie, Pennsylvania, hitting 72 degrees on Thursday.

“I associate cold with Christmas,” the 55-year-old says. “And if it’s warm it just doesn’t feel quite right to me.”

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.

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

The mild conditions have helped golf courses in New England 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 like Rau, 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.

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.

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