El Niño is making a comeback. You have likely heard the term El Niño over the years, and more recently, La Niña. What are these things? If you don’t fully know by now, La Niña has been dominant for the last few years, and that has to do with the cooling of the equatorial Pacific ocean waters. This pattern can lead to increased hurricane activity in the Atlantic and Colder than average conditions in parts of the United States. El Niño is essentially the opposite of La Niña and has to do with surface warming on the equatorial pacific waters. This can also impact the Atlantic hurricane frequency and lead to increased heat and also drought conditions, as well as storms for parts of the world. It really just depends on where you live! Let’s dive in a bit more.
The WMO (World Meteorological Organization) is suggesting there is a 60% chance of transitioning from an ENSO-Neutral State (neither El Niño or La Niña) into a full El Niño pattern beginning in May-July of 2023.
Typical El Niño setup for the US and parts of Canada:
This setup usually favors warmer than average conditions for the North central parts of the US, and even the mountainous regions, as well as Western Canada and the Pacific Northwest, with the polar jet stream parking itself further to the Northeast, across the Great Lakes and parts of the Northeast US. Dry conditions often for the Ohio river valley, and wet/stormy for the southern tier of the country and parts of Mexico with the extended Pacific Jet Stream.
Typical La Niña setup for the US and parts of Canada:
For this, the pattern basically flips itself. Colder for the Northern tier of the US and Western Canada. Drier for the Southern US, and Warmer. Wetter for the Ohio river valley, and wetter for a smaller area of the Pacific Northwest and Northern California. With this setup, that same Polar jet stream is often a few hundred miles further Southwest in its track, as compared to an El Niño setup.
This is a more global view of what we typically see for rainfall patterns during a typical El Niño year in the image below. The green zones across the globe typically see heavier rainfall, and the yellow zones are usually drier than average. This is not always the case and there are often anomalies, but this is what we typically see.
El Niño and Rainfall Graphic:
El Niño and La Niña are major drivers for climate and weather events globally, but they are not the only drivers. So this needs to be considered. One unusual thing is that this past winter, much of California had record rainfalls and snow events, to the point that snow is still 20 feet deep in some of the higher elevations. California typically sees this setup in an El Niño year, but when most of this happened, El Niño was not even dominant or emerging yet. Some of the more historically significant El Niño events were in 1982-1983 and 1997-1998. Many people likely remember 1998, having caused a wide array of global issues.
Some of the atmospheric river patterns and other unusual disruptions globally can also be attributed to climate change, and it will be interesting to see how the patterns evolve and if typical El Niño patterns are still prevalent with all of the new external factors we are now dealing with across the globe.
It remains to be seen if this pattern will fully develop- but it is clear that El Niño is making a comeback. There are already some signs, when you look at sea surface temperatures in that region, as well as an increased frequency of storms in the South and Southwest part of the United States, and drier than average conditions for other parts of the country.
Let’s take a look at current Sea Surface Temperatures (SST’s).
Equatorial Pacific SST’s (Sea Surface Temperatures- some warming is evident, as of May 2023:
It isn’t your textbook El Niño setup yet, but some warming is evident! The core of the warmest SST’s seems to be a bit North for the far Eastern part of the Pacific, but if that whole area expands more, it will look very characteristic of El Niño, even though it is already quite close.
It remains to be seen how impactful it will be this year for El Niño conditions, but the signs look likely, and preparations should begin now–especially if you are in an area that usually sees disruptions from an El Niño Pattern, as El Niño is making a comeback.
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Meteorologist Bo Cole