Weather Blog

Here comes El Nino; forgive us if we don't cheer

Here comes El Nino; forgive us if we don't cheer
Plenty of snow up at Mt. Rainier's Paradise Ranger Station this year. Will next winter have nearly as much? (Photo Courtesy: Mt. Rainier National Park)

SEATTLE -- Hey everyone, there's a good chance El Nino might be around for next winter!

California: "Yay! The expected heavy rains next winter should help our drought!"

Midwest and East Coast: "Yay! It likely means no more of this 'Polar Vortex' and weeks below freezing!"

Gulf Coast and Eastern Seaboard: "Yay! It typically means less hurricanes!"

Pacific Northwest: *sigh*

NOAA climate forecasters issued an "El Nino" watch Thursday, signaling that models show a better than 50 percent chance of El Nino conditions developing this summer or fall in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, and some say it could be "a substantial" El Nino.

El Nino is a warming of the waters in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, which in turn creates a cascading effect on trade winds and other tropical weather that impacts global weather patterns. It's part of a 3-7 year cycle that alternates with the La Nina event where the Pacific waters cool instead. In between, we get neutral years as we've currently had since mid-2012. El Nino's haven't been much of a factor for a while -- we've only had two small-to-moderate ones since 2005 while we've had five La Ninas. We haven't had a strong El Nino since 1998.

Google search El Nino for this news of the watch being issued and you'll find a national AP wire story floating out there trumpeting that a strong El Nino winter would bring typically shift the winter jet stream to the south, giving California the heavy rains typically aimed at the Pacific Northwest that could go a long ways toward helping their drought. El Nino winters also tend to be warmer across the East -- a welcome event after this winter's never-ending chill there -- and tend to suppress hurricane development in the Atlantic Ocean. It's like a national party!

Except we weren't invited. Ask any local skier or water supply manager and El Nino is akin to Darth Vader, David Stern and the San Francisco 49ers all wrapped into one.

El Ninos -- particularly strong ones -- usually lead to warm and dry fall and winters across the Pacific Northwest, with typically below-average mountain snowpack and less frequent lowland rain and snow events.

It's particularly stinging news since we just got done rescuing our snowpack this year, which was on pace to be at just half its normal amount at the start of February until nearly 10-15 feet of snow came during the end of the month -- likely not going to happen again in an El Nino winter.

And we're not the only ones who hate to see it. According to that AP story: "Scientific studies have tied El Ninos to farming and fishing problems and to upticks in insect-born disease, such as malaria. Commodity traders even track El Nino cycles. A study by Texas A&M University economics professor Bruce McCarl found the last big El Nino of 1997-1998 cost about $3 billion in agricultural damage." Peru tends to get the worst of it, getting floods and poorer fishing.

Now, snow lovers can hope that this El Nino meets the same fate as another budding El Nino in the spring of 2012. You might remember then NOAA also indicated a budding El Nino event, only to have the El Nino suddenly -- and unexpectedly -- fizzle later that summer and NOAA canceled their El Nino Watch. (Of course, that winter went on to feature an OK mountain snowpack, but nearly zero in the lowland snow department.)

Here are some similar looking charts -- the one on the left was the spring forecast for El Nino (defined as when avg ocean temperatures are 0.5C or more above normal)... in 2012. The one on the right is the current one for fall 2014.



But if El Nino does come generate and spark a national party, pardon us out here in the Pacific Northwest if we're the ones shouting to "turn that music down!"