El Niño is a periodic weather phenomenon having a strong impact this winter. It can bring strong weather to many parts of the world, including many parts of the United States. Understanding what El Niño is and how it affects the weather can help you protect your property against its effects.

What Is El Niño?

Back in the late 1800s, Peruvian sailors noted that, in certain years, a warm north-flowing current developed off the South American coast. Because it was most noticeable around Christmas, they named it “El Niño“, a Spanish reference to the Christ child.

Scientists have found that this phenomenon occurs when water surface temperatures rise significantly above average off the west coast of South America. This rotating band of warmer air is the warm phase of the El Niño Southern Oscillation. (The cool phase of the Oscillation cycle is La Niña.) To be named an El Niño, the band of warm air must be sustained for a minimum of three months.

As the surface temperatures rise as a result of this warm air flow, high pressure builds in the western Pacific while low pressure occurs in the eastern Pacific. This affects weather around the world.

How Does El Niño Affect Weather?

Past cycles have shown, that when El Niño occurs, distinct weather patterns tend to develop in certain areas of the world.

  • Rainfall increases in the eastern Pacific, including along the South American west coast.
  • Major rains bring flooding to Ecuador and northern Peru.
  • The warm water in the eastern Pacific interrupts the ocean food chain, leading to fish kills off of Peru.
  • Southern Brazil and northern Argentina get warmer, wetter springs.
  • In the Northwest, northern Midwest, and upper Northeast portions of the United States, see drier, warmer winters.
  • Wet winters occur in northwest Mexico and the southwest of the United States.
  • Cooler and wetter winters occur in the northeast of Mexico and the southeast of the U.S.
  • Wetter summers occur in East Africa, including Kenya and Tanzania.
  • Drier winters occur in south-central Africa, including Botswana and Zambia.
  • Southeast and northern Australia sees drier conditions that lead to bush fires and haze.
  • Parts of Antarctica, like Amundsen and Ross seas, see less ice in the water, while other areas, like the Weddell Sea, see more sea ice.
  • The western Pacific sees extensive drought, while the eastern Pacific sees large amounts of rainfall.

El Niño cycles have been noted many times in the past couple of centuries. The strongest occurrence was in 1997 and 1998.

What about 2015-2016?

A new El Niño began to develop in the eastern Pacific during the summer of 2015. Some weather experts predicted it could be even stronger than the 1997-1998 occurrence.

During past El Niño events, December tended to be warmer on the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains, especially in the northern tier of states. During the same time, higher than average moisture tends to get trapped along the southern coast as well as in a line going north from Louisiana to southern Wisconsin and Michigan.

However, no one El Niño is the same as another. This 2015-2016 predictions are a bit different. Forecasters think that temperatures along the U.S./Canadian border, from west coast to east coast, will be warmer than usual this winter. On the other hand, the Southwest, from California to Texas, will be cooler than normal.

As far as precipitation predictions, the Ohio Valley, Great Lakes, Northwest, and Northern Rockies will be drier than normal. The southern tier of states, from California to the Carolinas, will see wetter than normal conditions. These conditions can translate to potential flooding throughout the southern U.S. and record snow fall in the Southwest.

How is El Niño Shaping up so far?

The prediction for the 2015-2016 El Niño being stronger than the 1997-1998 cycle has already been proven true. The temperature readings of the central Pacific peaked at 37º F above average during the 1997-1998 cycle. On November 18, 2015, that key temperature peaked at 37.6º F.

Warm air has taken hold of the eastern U.S. Some areas are seeing temperatures 35 degrees above normal. This warm weather is not going to go anywhere, at least for the remainder of 2015 and early 2016. Many warm low temperature records are likely to fall as a result of this high temperature. It has already occurred in International Falls, Minnesota. Record high temperatures have also been recorded throughout southern Canada as warm air from the south has kept the Arctic cold air flow trapped to the far north.

What does it mean for you? If you live in regions where rainfall is higher than normal, you may face flooding at some point during this El Niño event. Take precautions and be careful.

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Photo Ingrid Taylar | Used under Creative Commons image attribution license 2.0