Dreams of a white Christmas are hanging by a thread in the North, where unusually mild weather has left the ground bare in many places — a welcome reprieve for people who don't like shoveling, but a lump of coal in the stockings of outdoor sports buffs who miss their winter wonderland.
From New England to the Dakotas and even parts of the Northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest, snowfall has been well below normal through the fall and early winter with cold air bottled up over Canada. Golf courses were open this week in Minneapolis, which a year ago was digging out from a storm that dumped more than 17 inches of snow and collapsed the Metrodome roof. Many downhill ski resorts are making snow to compensate for nature's stinginess.
"It's been an amazingly slow start to the winter for everybody," said Mike Boguth, a National Weather Service forecaster in Gaylord, Mich., a resort town that has had only about 2 inches of natural snow this year.
La Nina, the cooling of the equatorial Pacific Ocean that affects weather worldwide, has nudged the jet stream farther north. Air pressure over the northern Atlantic has steered storm systems away from the East Coast.
The trends have resulted in the least snow New England has seen in November and December since the late 1990s, said Eric Evenson, a weather service meteorologist in Burlington, Vt. Snow totals across the region are 4 to 14 inches below normal, he said.
Williston, N.D., where more than 5 inches would have accumulated by now in a typical December, has gotten nothing. A couple of inches fell farther south in Bismarck but melted. Montana's mountain snowpack is about 30 percent below average. Ski resorts in Washington state have gotten little snow since Thanksgiving.
Even snowy Michigan is feeling the pinch. Parts of the state regularly get more than 100 inches a year as clouds suck up moisture from the Great Lakes and deposit it over land. It's been sparse this year, although light snow fell Friday and forecasters said sections of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota might get the 1 inch required to qualify as a white Christmas.
Light flurries and temperatures around 30 degrees are expected Christmas Day in Green Bay, Wis., where the Packers will host the Chicago Bears. That's downright balmy for Lambeau Field, the notorious "frozen tundra" that has hosted a fair share of NFL games in bitter cold and pelting snow.
A storm system moving up from the Gulf coast may sprinkle up to 3 inches of snow in sections of the Northeast by Christmas, but it probably won't last long, Evenson said.
Along with painting the landscape in dreary shades of brown and gray instead of the usual white, the abnormally mild winter has affected the economy.
Local governments have spent less on plowing and salting roads. Gogebic County, in the snow belt of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, is about $100,000 better off than at this time a year ago, although road commission manager Darren Pionk said the savings might be short-lived.
"One or two bad months, and it can disappear pretty quickly," he said.
Some businesses geared toward the winter are having a hard time. Mike Pobuda of Empire, Mich., keeps busy plowing residential and commercial driveways in a typical winter. These days, the phone isn't ringing. He's working at a convenience store to help pay the bills.
"It was already tight out there and now it's tighter," Pobuda said.
In Sioux Falls, S.D., hardware store owner Dallas Vanden Bos said it's taken all season to sell as many bags of snow and ice melting materials as customers usually buy in one day.
The outdoor recreation industry is making the best of things. Sugarbush Resort in Warren, Vt., installed about 40 high-efficiency snowmaking machines this year and immediately put them to work making 18 of the property's 111 trails suitable for skiing and snowboarding, president and majority owner Win Smith said.
But smaller operations that can't afford snowmaking may suffer if the snow shortage lasts much longer, said Lisa Marshall, spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Department of Tourism.
"It could be make-or-break for them," she said.
Not everyone regrets that snow has been mostly a no-show, especially people who hate driving on slick roads and shoveling walks and driveways.
In Minneapolis, more than 100 people braved borderline freezing temperatures this week for a rare opportunity to play golf in December. Mike Schneider, a 70-year-old retiree, carried a handful of tees he had whittled to needle-sharp points so they would penetrate the frosty turf at Parkview Golf Club.
A fellow golfer, Jim Jorgensen, said there were advantages to playing in the cold. For one thing, freezing eliminates water hazards.
"It just skips across," Jorgensen said. "You don't have to worry about losing the ball."