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In some places, warm weekend baffles

Minnesotans can't go ice fishing, New Yorkers ice skate in shorts, and skiing is the pits everywhere.

Marty Richardson knows the ways that long winters can affect his fellow Minnesotans. Whenever the snow lingers around till the end of April, residents of this Nordic state get antsy for the outdoors.

But last week, as unseasonably balmy temperatures settled in across the United States, Mr. Richardson witnessed a phenomenon he thought he would never see: cabin fever, in reverse.

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"People in Minnesota were like bears trying to hibernate, expecting to hibernate, but they couldn't because the weather was too nice," Richardson says. "Everybody seemed kind of confused."

It's true. In a state where some residents mark New Year's Day by enthusiastically diving into frozen lakes, where the city of St. Paul celebrates the frigid temperatures by erecting a winter carnival ice castle, and where braving the elements is a cultural bonding experience, a December heat wave can be, well, strangely disconcerting.

From the Rocky Mountains to New England, record springlike temperatures - in a year that will go down in history as the world's warmest in 500 years - has affected everything from snow-blower sales to barren ski slopes.

At Lyndale Hardware in the Minneapolis suburb of Richfield, where Richardson works, snow-blower sales have ground to a halt. The same is true of toboggans, shovels, jumper cables, and windshield scrapers - standard provincial accouterments. "Usually, the first week of December means we're into our fourth reorder but we still have the same snow blowers that came in three months ago," Richardson says.

At Rockefeller Center and Central Park in New York City, where aspiring Hans Brinkers usually gather in full-length woolens to skate, maintenance workers have labored to keep the artificial ice cool enough. Rather than bundling up, figure skaters have been pirouetting in shorts and T-shirts.

Throughout the heartland prairie, hunters awaiting the annual southward migration of waterfowl have been jilted by ducks and geese that have resisted leaving the higher latitudes. Similarly, the November snow, which usually results in elk fleeing the mountains into the sights of hunters at lower elevations, never materialized, yielding big game harvests far below average in some spots.

At ski resorts in the West, Midwest, and New England, the lack of snow has delayed opening dates.

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Until the wave of temperatures in the 60s and 70s moved off the Eastern seaboard into the Atlantic Sunday, no fewer than 100 mid- to large-size cities in two dozen states had posted record highs.

Why the warm spell?

Is it global warming, a foreboding of coming meteorological cataclysms? Experts with the National Weather Service say there's no need to panic, at last not yet. Likewise, euphoric denizens of traditional ice-box cities shouldn't plan on permanently extending their time on the links, either.

The fact is, weather experts say, the maxim holds that often in years past, mild Decembers have given way to blizzards, extreme cold, and other winter vagaries in January and February. According to the Farmer's Almanac, the 1998 to 1999 winter is supposed to be colder and snowier than last year in the inner American West due to La Nia conditions caused by a cooling of ocean currents in the Pacific.

Despite those predictions, high pressure systems have prevented the jet stream from delivering Arctic air to the lower 48 states.

Half a world away, however, weather conditions are reversed. As Cleveland basks in Mayish baseball weather, Eastern Europe has felt the numbing chill of the Siberian Express with below zero temperatures for more than a week.

Still, in the US, where New York City's weather was warmer over the weekend than Los Angeles's, no one denies that things have been odd. Last Tuesday, after turning on the lights to the White House Christmas tree, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton declared: "When you think about this weather, it's a little hard to get into the Christmas spirit.

Around Minneapolis and St. Paul, hardy Minnesotans who traditionally flock to urban lakes to skate and fish through the ice were instead wind surfing on days almost 30 degrees warmer than normal. Some merchants reported that holiday shopping was down at the Mall of America, and sleigh rides for holiday office parties had to be postponed.

That's more like it

But meteorologists say that those dreaming of a white holiday season can rest easy. Snow and cold temperatures already are on their way due to changing weather patterns. Just ask residents of Bozeman, Mont.

Late last week, within hours of daytime near-record-high temperatures, a major storm blew in, dumping nearly two feet of snow in 24 hours. Although it buried confused violets and crocuses that had sprouted six months early, the humans who planted them appeared almost relieved.

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