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Going for the record: Can anything stop 2012 from being warmest ever?

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Most of the continental US – from the Southwest up into the Rockies and eastward into Maine – is forecast to see warmer-than-normal temperatures throughout this final period, notes Huug van den Dool, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center in College Park, Md.

The eastern third of the US is expected to see the drought easing – particularly between the Mississippi River and the Appalachian Mountains and in the Southeast.

One key reason is the apparent shift in conditions from two consecutive years of La Niña to a weak El Niño this coming winter. La Niña and El Niño represent opposite states in sea-surface temperatures and wind patterns along the equatorial Pacific. Both can affect atmospheric circulation patterns well beyond the tropics.

For the US, La Niña tends to push average storm tracks across the continent farther north than usual, while El Niño tends to drive them farther south. The onset of El Niño is expected to bring welcome rainfall to the Southeast and mid-Atlantic states. But the more southerly path for storms could lead to a dearth of precipitation farther north in sections of the country already hit hard by drought.

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