Winters in the southern tier of the Northeast, and across the Mid Atlantic region, can be variable, to say the least. The vast region spans an impressive range of geography, from southeastern coasts to inland mountains, from Virginia to New York.

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 the Northeast for December, January, and February finds an equal chance for above, normal, and below-normal temperatures and precipitation. The Southeast can expect below-normal temps, and an equal chance for above-normal, normal, and below-normal precipitation. That should arrive as cheery news for snowmakers, who need the cold weather to practice their craft.

Skiers and snowboarders scan the stars, and the long-range weather forecasts, 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?

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.

Some Northeast skiers and riders seek counsel elsewhere. 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 New York City is 28 inches, Albany is 63 inches, and Buffalo 91 inches. Atlantic City, N.J., has 16 inches of snow on average, while Newark has 27 inches. Philadelphia has 21 inches, Pittsburgh 43 inches, and Erie 85 inches. Baltimore has 21 inches, Roanoke, Va., 23 inches, and Elkins, W.Va. 76 inches. Sugar Mountain, N.C., averages well over 80 inches of snowfall each season, while coastal Cape Hatteras has but 2 inches.