U.S. natural gas prices extended strong gains from last week on Monday to hit the highest level in more than five weeks, as forecasts for freezing weather across large parts of the U.S. boosted expectations for much higher heating demand. On the New York Mercantile Exchange, natural gas for delivery in April rose 2.1 cents, or 0.71%, to trade at $2.993 per million British thermal units during U.S. morning hours. Prices hit a session high of $3.044 earlier in the day, the strongest level since January 16. Futures were likely to find support at $2.839 per million British thermal units, the low from February 20, and resistance at $3.177, the high from January 16. On Friday, natural gas for delivery in April surged 9.7 cents, or 3.37%, to settle at $2.972. Nymex natural gas prices climbed 13.3 cents, or 5.24%, last week, the second consecutive weekly gain. Updated weather forecasting models showed a polar blast extending into early March, with severely cold weather covering most of the country. Temperatures in the key Northeast and Midwest regions were expected to be below normal through March 6. About 49% of U.S. households use gas for heating. Bullish speculators are betting on the frigid weather boosting winter demand for the heating fuel. The heating season from November through March is the peak demand period for U.S. gas consumption. Despite recent gains, natural gas prices remain vulnerable in the near-term amid speculation supplies are more than ample to meet demand. Total U.S. natural gas storage stood at 2.157 trillion cubic feet as of last week, 2.8% above the five-year average for this time of year. Last spring, supplies were 55% below the five-year average, indicating producers have more than made up for last winter’s unusually strong demand. Futures are down almost 34% since mid-November as an unusually mild start to winter limited demand while production soared. Elsewhere on the Nymex, crude oil for delivery in April sank $1.84, or 3.63%, to trade at $48.97 a barrel, while heating oil for April delivery dropped 1.1% to trade at $1.889 per gallon.