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Snow? What's that? Temperatures lingering in the 50s raise doubts that we're really in good old Western New York

Many ski slopes are empty, but the golf courses are bustling.

Snowplow contractors are relaxing while roofers are hard at work.

Daffodils are sprouting. Oil prices are plummeting.

Do not adjust your calendar: Today is Jan. 5 in Western New York, and the forecast calls for temperatures in the 50s and not even a hint of flurries in the air.

But this is not the only "hot spot." Temperatures are above normal across the Northeast and Midwest. Meteorologists and scientists cite a variety of factors, including cyclical conditions, El Nino and global warming, which could combine to make 2007 the warmest year in recorded history.

The question for those of us walking around in flip-flops instead of mukluks: Are we going to pay in February and March for our unseasonable December and January?

Maybe not.

"We're seeing pretty much a zonal flow," said Alan Blackburn, senior meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Buffalo. "The kind of pattern we're [in] now, it means milder winter."

The sign on the West Falls Ski Shop said it all.

"Closed Thursday. Playing golf."

A winter that started with a freak snowstorm has continued with freakishly warm weather, prompting the shop's owner, John Kralisz, to lock the door and head for the links at Byrncliff Resort and Conference Center in Varysburg.

"This was my first time golfing in January," he said. "It's a nice day for being outside."

He certainly wasn't alone, as many other Western New Yorkers enjoyed Thursday afternoon's 51-degree weather.

Edy Steggs, who works in the office at Byrncliff -- which is normally choked with cross-country skiers by now -- estimated that 60 golf carts were in use by Thursday afternoon. Some had to be brought out of storage.

"We actually had a note saying we were going to close Dec. 15," Steggs said. "People kept calling. It works out good for us."

Ken Schuh of Orchard Park and Tom Breen of West Seneca have golfed in Ontario in winters past.

"They don't get the lake effect [snow]. You're able to drive out of the snowstorm," Schuh said.

Thursday at Byrncliff was "much more crowded than ever before," Schuh observed. "We kind of don't like it," he joked.

Breen said he and Schuh were better off walking the course Thursday, which was breezy. "Riding a cart is tough in this weather. It really is," Breen said.

Other businesses also have benefited from the mild winter.

Roofer Tom Neth of Neth & Son Inc. of Depew has an appointment book full of work at a time of the year when his business usually lies dormant.

"This has been very nice," he said. "I was hoping for a later winter this year, but I didn't believe I'd get this much."

Neth said he had the busiest December ever, which has translated into unexpected paychecks for about 40 of his summertime work force of 80.

"Right now, we don't have one employee laid off," he said. "We generally lay off half [during winter]."

Another weather-related benefit: Oil prices dropped more than $2 Thursday to settle at their lowest level since June 2005. The unseasonably mild winter in the Northeast and Midwest has led to a buildup in inventories and, as a result, weaker prices.

"There is no winter at all, thus we have a lot of supplies with no home and prices have nothing to do but fall," said James Cordier, president of Liberty Trading Group in Tampa, Fla.

But the nonwhite winter has had a serious impact on snow-dependent businesses, like Kralisz's ski shop. He says he's off 80 percent from a normal year.

"You can't force the issue when there's no snow," he said.

The folks at nearby Kissing Bridge Ski Area know that all too well.

It's bad enough the hills are largely bare, with warm temperatures leaving no opportunity to make snow. Now, add rumors of the resort's impending demise.

This week, erroneous word started spreading that if conditions weren't better by mid-month, Kissing Bridge would pull the plug on the season.

"I was in the post office about four days ago and the postmistress said, 'My husband said . . .,' " ski area President Mark Halter recalled Thursday.

The home page of Kissing Bridge's Web site tackles the rumor head on. "This is not true, we will continue to prepare for winter no matter the duration of this warm spell," it states.

"This sort of thing can be very damaging," Halter said. "At this point, we are committed to getting open, making snow, staying open. We are going to do as much as we can to prolong the ski season. If that means I am making snow on March 10, I am going to do it."

"We have got every snowmaker we have hooked up, poised, positioned, awaiting the temperature to hit the magic number. The magic number is around 28 degrees Fahrenheit," Halter said.

Approximately 30 miles to the south, the elevation of the ridges that comprise Holiday Valley provides better odds when it comes to making snow.

"Right now, what snowmaking we have been doing . . . is to keep open what we have," marketing director Jane Eshbaugh said Thursday.

Five quad lifts are running, and 14 slopes and trails -- including the rail, are open.

"We have actually been quite busy this week because it's a Canadian school holiday," Eshbaugh said.

Some students in Western New York are finding they have to wait for their schools' ski club activities.

Tonight would have been the first session at Kissing Bridge for the City Honors middle school ski club. But, like dozens of ski club advisers, Marco Jurich got a call this week, saying the trails are closed. "The kids were disappointed, but I think they were kind of expecting it," the math teacher said.

Orchard Park High School's ski club was able to sneak in an early outing to Holiday Valley in mid-December, but had to scratch its scheduled ski night, adviser Brian Godfrey said.

Representatives of both ski areas said ski club sessions will be rescheduled or doubled up.

Aside from the 22.6 inches of snow that fell Oct. 12-13, it's been a nearly snow-free winter. Only 9.6 inches fell since the October storm. Normally, by this time, Buffalo would have had at least 36 inches of snow.

The Lake Erie temperature at Buffalo is 43 degrees, the warmest it has ever been this late in the season and eight degrees above normal.

As any longtime Western New Yorker knows, that pool of warm moisture is what feeds the lake effect snows we usually get early in winter.

"I'd have to believe somebody somewhere down the road -- whether it's Buffalo, south of the city or Rochester -- is going to pay for the warm weather," said Tom Kines of Accuweather.

Includes reporting by the Associated Press.

e-mail: jbonfatti@buffnews.com,

jhabuda@buffnews.com and mpasciak@buffnews.com

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