For a season that's proving hard to predict, meteorologists, weather forecasters and other prognosticators all see Maryland's approaching winter a little differently.

"We really don't know" what the winter might look like, said Ed O'Lenic, a meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center.

On Wednesday, NOAA released its predictions for December through February for the various regions of the country, and the forecast is pretty cloudy for the zone that includes Maryland.

The statistics and weather models used to make seasonal outlooks this year do not clearly indicate what Maryland and other mid-Atlantic states could experience, O'Lenic said.

"We truly are not settled on what's the most likely thing to happen in either precipitation or temperature," he said.

What will have the greatest impact on Maryland's winter, especially along the coast, is likely to be a weather pattern known as the North Atlantic Oscillation, but it's also a weather feature that makes predictions challenging. Characterized by unpredictable shifts in low- and high-pressure systems, the North Atlantic pattern contributes to northeasters, the strong storms that produce winds from the northeast.

But because the pattern "wobbles back and forth" from week to week, O'Lenic said, it is difficult to predict its effects very far in advance.

"We're overdue for some nor'easters," and Maryland will probably see some this year, said Bill O'Toole, a math and computer science professor at Mount St. Mary's University who forecasts the weather for the Hagerstown Town and Country Almanack.

O'Toole had to make his predictions before July, when the Almanack was published. It is his view that winter probably will start early, around November, and end early, around February. The snowiest month will be January, he says.

During the 2004-05 winter, Maryland's average temperature was 32.6 degrees, the 35th coldest since 1895, the first year recorded by the National Weather Service. Precipitation was 9.87 inches last year, 64th highest since it was first measured.

Overall, temperatures may be slightly higher than usual, although there will be a few snowstorms, which will bring most of the state's snowfall, O'Toole said.

"I don't expect that it's going to be a real severe winter -- kind of average," he said.

Unlike its Maryland counterpart, the 2006 Old Farmer's Almanac predicts temperatures along the Atlantic Corridor "will be 1 degree below normal, on average, with above-normal precipitation in most of the region."

According to the Old Farmer's Almanac, the biggest snowfalls will occur in early December and mid-January, and temperatures will be colder than normal during those months. Warmer-than-average temperatures in the Atlantic, key to this year's active hurricane and tropical storm season, could affect this winter's weather, O'Lenic said, but they have not been considered in making winter weather forecasts.

However this year's winter weather readings compare with the averages, officials and residents across the state say one prediction is coming true: Prices for home heating fuels are rising sharply.

Maryland is focusing on energy assistance for this winter, said Susan Shingledecker, assistant director for renewable energy at the Maryland Energy Administration. "The first and most important step is looking out for low-income citizens."

Heating costs from all sources are expected to rise, and natural gas prices for the region that includes Maryland are projected to increase 45 percent, from $730 per household to $1,600 this winter, said Neil Gamson, an economist with the federal Energy Information Administration.

The Maryland Energy Administration closely tracks heating fuel and petroleum prices to stay up on fluctuations, Shingledecker said.

Maryland has conservation programs in place that are gaining more attention as energy costs go up. The state, said Shingledecker, has sponsored conservation events, provided information about alternative fuel and worked with some counties to change their school bus fleets to use biodiesel.

The Hagerstown Town and Country Almanack forecasts January as the snowiest month and says winter will end early, as it did in February 2002 in Lusby, right. A snowy scene off Hawthorne Road in La Plata in February.