New England winters are the stuff of legend. Nowhere in America is the saying, "Don't like the weather, wait five minutes" more appropriate.

So what can the region expect this coming winter, according to the Lords of Climate at the National Weather Service? Short and sweet: The NWS long-range forecast for New England for December, January, and February finds an equal chance for above, normal, and below-normal temperatures and precipitation.

The National Weather Service puts out long-range forecasts for the entire country. These prognostications are based on historic weather patterns, temperature and precipitation records, and other climate indicators from around the globe. They sometimes hit the nail on the head, but often do not.

Snow remains a major player in the New England winter scene, where geography often means early winters, cold weather, and long seasons, at least in the mountains inland from the long and rocky coast.

The winters can also be the stuff of nightmares, as in the record ice storm of December 2008 that left much of Central New England without power for up to two weeks. That played havoc with people postponing ski trips to deal with their own emergencies.

Skiers and snowboarders scan for signs each year as fall spins into winter to glean some inkling of what lies ahead.

Will winter bring cold and snow, warm rain, some combination? Will the timing of cold arctic air masses moving into the region from Central Canada match up with the arrival of moisture moving up the coast from the south, in such a way that snow results?

New Englanders have other ways to predict the winter weather, and some people swear by their accuracy. Others dismiss them as out-and-out myths or old wives tales. Do woolly bear caterpillars have thicker coats than normal? Are there more nuts falling, and are squirrels scampering even more madly than usual to store up winter food? It's a mystery why people ascribe powers of foreknowledge to insects, rodents, and nuts, but some do. After comparing long-range predictions with what actually happens, some conclude the critters and acorns are just as reliable as the scientists.

Jeremy Davis, senior meteorologist with Weather Routing Inc., a weather service in upstate New York, questions the wisdom of over-reliance on long-range forecasts. Davis suggests that the devil in forecasting lies in the little details of timing that determine the shape of the weather. "Whether you have snow or rain depends on exactly when the precipitation falls," Davis said. "It can be warm and dry, or cold and precipitating. The long-range forecasts missed the cold snap in January, and the rainy June."

Average snowfall varies widely across the region, from coast to mountain, from south to north.

Average snowfall in Boston is 41 inches; in Worcester, 68 inches; in Bridgeport, Conn., 25 inches; in Hartford, 47 inches; in Burlington, Vt., 77 inches; in Caribou, Maine, 110 inches, and Mount Washington, N.H., 255 inches.