Winter 2016 and “The Mother of all El Niños”

El Niño is getting a lot of media attention these days being blamed for floods, famine, and the spread of diseases. This year’s El Niño is shaping up to be one of the stronger, if not the strongest, El Niño in history. In fact, it’s drawing comparisons to the 1997 El Niño event, which is the strongest El Niño on record and sometimes called “The Mother of all El Niños.”

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the current El Niño event in the Pacific Ocean is expected to peak in December, but the impacts of El Niño are expected to last well into the spring of 2016. These impacts are likely to influence weather in our region.

El Nino comparison

Comparison of 1997 El Niño (left) and 2015 El Niño

When it comes to Earth’s climate, weather phenomena happening in faraway places can sometimes have dramatic impacts locally. El Niño is characterized by unusually warm ocean temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific Ocean. The image above shows areas of the Pacific Ocean with above-normal water temperatures colored in red in August of the 1997 El Niño event and August of 2015.

When El Niño occurs, very warm waters in the Pacific Ocean pump more moisture into the atmosphere. This impacts and changes the direction of major wind currents, steering weather systems across the United States. In other words, the typical storm paths in the United States are shifted. Typically, El Niño shifts storm tracks south during the winter months resulting in increased precipitation across the southern tier of the United States. At the same time, El Niño tends to bring warmer-than-normal temperatures to Alaska, Canada, and the northern tier of the United States. 

2016 3 month precipitation outlook

2016 3-month precipitation outlook

So what El Niño effects can our region expect
to see for the upcoming winter and spring?  According to NOAA’s climate prediction
center
, our region is likely to experience a mild winter temperature-wise with below-normal precipitation. The image on the right shows areas of the United States expected to have above-normal precipitation in green and
below-normal precipitation in brown over the next three months. Most of Ohio is colored in brown. The outlook for spring is similar, with near-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation.

Is this forecast a sure bet? It isn’t. The Earth’s climate systems are extremely complex, and El Niño is only one of many factors influencing our weather. The temperature and precipitation outcomes we experience this winter are a result of a multitude of complex interactions among the Earth’s weather systems. We can only wait and see!

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