(adds opening market activity, adds cash prices)
NEW YORK, Dec 23 (Reuters) - U.S. natural gas futures reached their highest point since July 2011 early Monday on forecasts for cold to follow the mild temperatures the East Coast has recently experienced and on last week's report of strong drawdowns in storage.
"Natural gas futures are sharply higher on extremely heavy volume on forecasts for frigid temperatures to persist in the Midwest and Northeast," said Addison Armstrong, senior director of market research at Tradition Energy.
Benchmark natural gas futures reached $4.532 in early Monday trading, surpassing Friday's high of $4.492, which was the highest price since July 21, 2011.
At 9:59 a.m. EST (1459 GMT), front-month January futures on the New York Mercantile Exchange were up 5.9 cents at $4.477 per million British thermal units.
In the cash market, prices for Tuesday delivery at Henry Hub <GT-HH-IDX>, the benchmark supply point in Louisiana, climbed 18 cents to $4.53. Early deals were 4-cents under the NYMEX price, easing from a 9-cent discount on Thursday.
Private forecaster MDA Weather Services said temperatures will change from the weekend's very warm in the East to much colder weather over most of the country from Dec. 25 to Jan. 3.
On Thursday, gas climbed more than 5 percent after the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported natural gas stocks last week fell by 285 billion cubic feet, eclipsing the previous record of 274 bcf, set in January 2008.
Gas inventories peaked this year in early November at 3.834 trillion cubic feet, just 2 percent below last year's record highs at that time.
Chilly November and December weather triggered stock draws that were more than double the norm for that period and prompted analysts to scale back end-winter storage estimates.
This week's report is likely to show another above-average drawdown, with early estimates ranging from 135 bcf to 160 bcf, versus a 74 bcf drop during the same week a year ago and a 125 bcf five-year average decline for the week.
If drawdowns for the rest of the heating season match the five-year average, storage would end winter below 1.5 tcf, the lowest since 2008.
Traders noted the premium of the March 2014 gas futures over the April contract shot up to its widest in seven months, as the March contract rose along with other winter heating contracts.
In U.S. nuclear news, there were 2,400 megawatts out on Monday versus 3,500 MW out on Friday. That compares with 11,600 MW a year ago and a five-year average of 6,100 MW. (Reporting By Julia Edwards; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Alden Bentley)