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The stage is set for winter; As the solstice officially arrives this evening, the area shivers and glistens under an already substantial carpet of white

Winter officially doesn't begin until this evening, but the season of traffic-snarling snow and hibernation-inducing cold never waits for the calendar in Western New York.

The region saw above-average snowfall -- and below-normal temperatures -- for the first part of this month, with a cool 30 inches of snow even before we reach the winter solstice.

And our friends down the Thruway in Syracuse, where they've been hit with a December record 70 inches of snow, are trying to end the Golden Snowball contest before it even begins.

In the land of lake effect, Dec. 21 is just another day.

"I think as soon as the cold air comes in across the lakes, that's when winter starts," said Patrick DeCoursey, a Syracusan who keeps the statistics for the contest that provides a trophy to the large upstate New York city receiving the highest snowfall each season.

The calendar might have said it was fall, but that didn't stop a couple of powerful storms from blowing through the Buffalo Niagara region this month.

One nasty lake-effect band dumped up to 3 feet of snow in parts of the eastern and southern suburbs, stranding hundreds of drivers overnight on the Thruway and leaving a chastened Thruway Authority and State Police vowing to improve their response.

The National Weather Service station at Buffalo Niagara International Airport had recorded 30.2 inches of snow as of Sunday, meteorologist Tony Ansuini said.

That is 4.2 inches above the average of 26 inches for this far into the season, and well above the 16.2 inches we had at the same point in what turned out to be a mild 2009-2010 winter, Ansuini said.

The airport receives an average of 97 inches of snow in a winter, but last year got just 74.1 inches, according to the Weather Service.

"We had a very short snowfall season. December, January and February were the only months snow fell," Ansuini said.

The Dec. 1-2 storm that stopped Thruway traffic also did a number on South Buffalo and Lovejoy, so public works crews have been working hard to keep city streets clear for weeks already.

"All [today] means is that it's the official start of winter. It's just a date. It doesn't mean that much to us," said Steven J. Stepniak, commissioner of Buffalo's Department of Public Works. "It could start Oct. 13, as we all saw."

Stepniak said he hopes the cooler-than-normal temperatures for December mean Lake Erie will freeze sooner, an event that ends the lake-effect snow machine and leads to more predictable weather.

While November's average temperature for the area was 1 degree warmer than normal, December so far has been 5.3 degrees below normal, with an average daily temperature of 26.1 degrees, Ansuini said.

National Fuel predicts its average residential customers in Western New York will spend $715 on their heating bills this winter, an estimate that takes into account November usage, said Donna L. DeCarolis, a company spokeswoman.

This figure is 3 percent less than last year's actual average of $737 from November through March.

While the region has had an impressively cold and snowy start to the season, we don't have anything on our friends in Syracuse. The Salt City has been pounded by 70.9 inches of snow so far in December, a record for the month, according to the Weather Service.

"A lot of shoveling," DeCoursey said.

Syracuse is just about ready to retire the Golden Snowball statue, which sits on a shelf outside the mayor's office.

That city has won the last eight contests, beginning with 2002-03, beating runner-up Rochester, 106.1 inches to 89.8 inches, he said.

Buffalo finished in fourth place, between Binghamton and Albany, with its 74.1 inches, and hasn't won the trophy since 2001-02.

Buffalo, which would be happy to pass this winter notoriety to someone else, won't be doing much to catch up to Syracuse before the end of 2010.

Temperatures are predicted to stay below normal, but we won't receive more than 1 or 2 inches of snow in any storm in the next seven to 10 days.

e-mail: swatson@buffnews.com

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