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Region's chance of a white Christmas up in the air

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FARGO -- The dream of a white Christmas may appear headed for reality, but John Wheeler isn't betting on it just yet.

WDAY TV's chief meteorologist said the thin layer of snow covering Fargo-Moorhead area is "pretty tenuous" and could quickly vanish if this week's cold spell gives way to warmer temperatures, which the National Weather Service says is a possibility because of the El Nino weather pattern.

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"Our snow cover is so limited right now that if we got one sunny day at 35 degrees it would be gone," Wheeler said. "So there's really no guarantee of a white Christmas yet."

Historically, the likelihood of a white Christmas here is high. Fargo has spent Christmas Day under a white blanket 83 percent of the time over the past 60 winters, according to the weather service.

The snow depth on Christmas Day has measured 4.1 inches on average, although in 10 of those years it was less than an inch. The last brown Christmas was in 2006.

But it's the thermometer, not the ruler, that will get the most attention this week, as high temperatures struggle to stay in the single digits and lows dip into the negatives.

Weather service meteorologist Dan Riddle said the severity of the cold will depend heavily on how much cloud cover remains as a high-pressure system from Canada ushers in frigid air behind a major Midwest storm system that's expected to stay south of North Dakota today and Wednesday.

The weather service revised its forecast Monday to reflect the mercury's expected slide, with highs predicted between 4 and 8 degrees and lows between 3 below and 6 below through Sunday.

"It does look like, after that period, we are going to start moderating again," Riddle said.

Based on the El Nino pattern, the weather service predicts a milder period around Christmas, with normal or above-normal temperatures, perhaps all the way through January, Riddle said.

"Precipitation doesn't look like anything significant for quite a long time," he said.

However, Wheeler cautioned that this year's El Nino "is not behaving like a lot of recent El Ninos, and there will be some opportunities for other influences." Specifically, an El Nino-like pattern known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation is stuck in a cold phase and could contribute to colder weather, he said.

"Which might mean that our winter will end up being a little closer to average rather than way warmer than average," Wheeler said.

This week's cold spell will bring below-average temperatures, but nothing extraordinary, Wheeler said, noting today's record low is 21 below z.

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