How Mighty El Nino? What it Means to You

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This is the time of year when El Niño, or lack thereof, makes a lot of press. Just in the last few days there have been several online articles that caught my attention, but if you do a Yahoo! or Google search on “2014 El Niño” more than 24 million hits will be returned. Is it that big of a deal?

Actually, yes. It is that big of a deal. Perhaps, “El Niño mas Grandé” might be a more appropriate term because it’s not just “the child,” but the child who is so big he reaches out and touches almost every human on the planet. Especially considering that the 2014 Atlantic Hurricane Season is on the near horizon and El Niño can be an influencing factor, all eyes are on this cyclical — and potentially dominating — weather feature.

When viewed from space, the Pacific seems mild and tranquil. However, warmer than normal water temperatures just below the surface can impact climate from one side of the globe to the other.

When viewed from space, the Pacific seems mild and tranquil. However, warmer than normal water temperatures just below the surface can impact climate from one side of the globe to the other.

Let’s make sure we’re all understanding just who this kid is and what he does. El Niño (in Spanish, the child (masculine)) signifies an unusual warming of the eastern Pacific surface and near-surface waters. Warmer waters effect the lower atmosphere above it, allowing more instability which in turn allows more rainfall and more thunderstorm activity. This translates into more clouds that, thanks to the prevailing westerlies, travel eastward and tend to cloud-over the Caribbean, the southern United States and the Equatorial Atlantic resulting in cooler water temperatures. At least one result in the Atlantic is the likelihood for a somewhat reduced hurricane count.

Not to belabor the back-story of El Niño, but any student of atmospheric dynamics or physics knows that one can’t have cause without effect, or warming without cooling, or wetting without drying. A warmer eastern Pacific means a cooler western Pacific, a cooler western Pacific means a cooler and drier eastern Australia, as an example. A warmer eastern Pacific even changes the abundance of fish and therefore has an affect on the fishing industry. We’ve barely touched on the consequences of El Niño, yet we’ve touched everyone from Australia to the U.S. and even to Europe and Africa. “El Niño mas Grande?” Sure!

Skipping right past a moderate or weak El Niño, one article I read the other day wondered just how mighty the 2014 El Niño would be (“¡El Niño Poderoso!”). While some articles wonder if there will be an El Niño, others attempt to gauge its strength and still others are beginning to trend it downward from previous estimates, this article asked “How mighty?”

There are lots of players on this field, but the biggest would have to be NOAA. NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center weighed in yesterday: “While ENSO-neutral is favored for Northern Hemisphere spring, the chances of El Niño increase during the remainder of the year, exceeding 50 percent by summer.” Government-speak headlines are not always the most elegant of prose, but their point is clear — they’re not yet leaning strongly one way or the other. (Read their six-page report here.)

The opposite of El Nino, La Nina, brings cooler-than-normal waters to the eastern Pacific. In turn, this brings an abundance of sealife to feast and frolic.

The opposite of El Nino, La Nina, brings cooler-than-normal waters to the eastern Pacific. In turn, this brings an abundance of sea life to feast and frolic.

I still like “mighty.” ImpactWeather’s long-range expert, Sr. Meteorologist Fred Schmude, lays it out thusly: risk of El Niño, near 100%; risk of moderate El Niño, 90%; risk of strong El Niño, 70%. (Fred correlates “moderate” with a +1.0C anomaly and strong with a +1.5C anomaly.)

What’s this mean to you? Right off the bat (all other things being equal), I’d take a storm or two off the usual total for Atlantic Basin tropical storms. Fewer storms, less rainfall; more clouds, cooler temperatures from Central America to the Atlantic. Cooler waters in the western Pacific should translate into more stable conditions — drier and cooler for Australia. I’d up the temperatures for the west coast of South America as those warmer EastPac waters shut off the more typical cool upwelling. I’d also up the rainfall across the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. and with a more active southern jet stream in the Northern Hemisphere, I think more rain across the southern U.S. should be considered. Additionally, as computer models are suggesting El Niño will continue into the fall and winter, wetter and cooler conditions should prevail across the southern U.S as we push toward the New Year.

All this rain — might it be a drought-buster for California? There should certainly be more rain and at times heavy, flood-/landslide-inducing rain, but the drought is extensive — much of California today is classified as severe and extreme drought, with central California classified as exceptional. Flooding and landslides aside, El Niño conditions should bring abundant rain to this area, and how much remains to be seen. However, it will likely take ongoing El Niño conditions to bring significant relief.

The mighty El Niño’s reach is far and its effect is much greater than “simple” warming of the eastern Pacific. Where will this episode of The Child rank? Will it be mild or extreme? Will he be pouty or outright naughty? Time will tell, but I already think we need a way to send this kid to time-out.

 

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