'How'd I get to work? Four wheel drive,' says Denver forecaster

Is the weather ever going to be normal again? Last winter, much of the United States basked in surprisingly mild temperatures, while ferocious storms ate homes along the California coast. Summer brought parching drought that evaporated creeks and claimed corn crops from the Rockies to Maine.

Now, as if we needed to be reminded what winter is like, an early storm has dawdled through the Great Plains, dumping two feet of snow on some states before rambling up into Canada.

But this blizzard isn't necessarily a taste of things to come, according to the National Weather Service. Donald Gilman, chief of NWS predictions, says our recent erratic weather patterns should begin to stabilize.

''This winter we're expecting something a little more normal,'' he says.

The reason, he says, lies in the Pacific, off the coast of South America. During the last year, a warm current there known as ''El Nino'' has spawned strong westerly winds in the United States. These winds powered the storms that destroyed beachfront real estate in Malibu last year. They also kept arctic air from sweeping into the US from Canada with its usual strength last winter.

But El Nino is now ''washing out,'' says Dr. Gilman. Weather patterns during the next three months should be more traditional.

They won't be exactly average, however. Gilman estimates there's an above-average chance that both the East and West Coasts will be somewhat warmer than normal this winter. The southern Great Plains and northern Great Lakes have a good chance of getting colder-than-normal weather, he says.

Only the Northwest and lower Mississippi Valley should get more precipitation than normal, according to the weather service's three-month forecast.

But the swath of the US buried by this week's storm will see a ''mix'' of weather this winter, he admits. ''We don't think it's going to be as bad as this all winter (for the Midwest). But I'd hate to assure anybody of anything,'' says Gilman.

Midwesterners and Rocky Mountain residents hit by the weekend's snow can at least be sure they will need their shovels again before winter's end. An echo of the original storm was expected to have dumped another 1 to 3 inches of snow on Northern Colorado yesterday. That's on top of the 21 inches already on the ground.

''They haven't plowed the side streets yet,'' says Maury Pautz, chief meteorologist at Denver's National Weather Service office. ''How'd I get to work? Four-wheel drive.''

The big parent storm, which on Tuesday was taking its sweet time exiting into Canada, was unusual in that it moved at only about 10 to 15 miles per hour, giving it plenty of time to drop lots of precipitation.

''It's been a sluggish, slow-moving affair,'' says Mac McLaughlin, chief meteorologist of the NWS central-region office in Kansas City.

The storm left behind a crescent of snow stretching from Colorado up through Wisconsin. Normally, such a winter storm would continue east, aimed at New York, but this one was headed off by somewhat unusual north-south winds, says McLaughlin.

Meteorologists are skilled at predicting short-term weather patterns such as the path of this winter storm. Forecasts looking one or two days ahead are upwards of 90 percent accurate, according to an NWS official.

But much beyond that, the outlook gets hazy. Three-month forecasts such as Gilman is making for this winter are based on experience and intuition as much as science. Accuracy falls to 65 percent or less.

''Long-term predictions don't have the scientific background, such as that which goes behind the day-to-day forecasts,'' Gilman admits. Last year, however, was a good one for the National Weather Service predictions branch. They called nearly everything right, including the unusual warmth that blanketed most of the US.

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