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December 7, 2009

State forecaster sees cooler, drier winter

Although his forecast of normal temperatures and rainfall for this past summer was way wide of the mark, state climatologist Dr. Stuart Foster is not afraid to offer a winter forecast.

Based on the best available data and scientific models, the National Weather Service expects Kentucky to have a winter that is cooler and drier than normal.

No one expected the cool, wet summer that Kentucky experienced this year, Foster said. The season included the coolest July on record.

The surprising weather was caused by the jet stream – a high-speed river of air in the upper atmosphere that has a strong influence – dipping much farther south than normal, he said.

Climatologists base long-range predictions on “mega factors” such as the jet stream, the high pressure cell that hovers over the North Atlantic in the summer and the temperature of the South Pacific Ocean, said Foster, who directs the Kentucky Climate Center at Western Kentucky University.

When the South Pacific’s temperature is slightly higher than normal, the phenomenon is called El Nino, Spanish for little boy. A slightly cooler ocean temperature is called La Nina, or little girl.

Even a slight variation in the distant southern ocean’s temperature can have far-reaching effects on weather in North America, Foster said.

His prediction of a cooler, drier this winter is based on the development of a moderate El Nino, he said.

Unfortunately for forecasters in the Ohio Valley, the El Nino and La Nina effects are felt more consistently in the north Central Plains and in the lower southeast.

The current El Nino should mean above average temperatures this winter in northern states such as North Dakota and Montana and below normal temperatures in Florida and the Gulf Coast.

The Ohio Valley, including Kentucky, is “betwixt and between” in another way that also makes weather prediction problematic. It is where the warm, moist air coming up from the Gulf of Mexico converges with cold air coming down from Canada.

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