What’s going on with El Niño?

The other day, I was scrolling through my Facebook news feed when I came across a post from one of my friends that said something like “Where is El Niño? It’s like -5 degrees outside”. Short answer, it is still there. So what exactly is El Niño? It is an above average warming of sea surface temperatures across the equatorial central and east Pacific.

El Niño reached its peak between September-November 2015, making it the third strongest on record. So why then, if it is still strong and present, are temperatures in the Midwest and other areas of the US dropping below zero? Well, El Niño is not the sole driver of atmospheric conditions. There are other atmospheric conditions that can act as blocking agents. For example, the AO and NAO (Arctic Oscillation and North Atlantic Oscillation) can fight against El Niño. Without going into too much detail, we are currently in a negative AO phase, which has caused widespread arctic air to sit across central Canada. This arctic air can then be brought into the Great Lakes region, Plains, and eastern United States hence the bitter cold weather!

Typical winter El Niño winter pattern

Typical winter El Niño winter pattern

Overview of El Niño Impacts

So I’m sure by this point, everyone has heard the term “El Niño” get thrown around by newscasters on TV, news websites, and even Chris Farley. Not all bad weather can be connected back to the anomaly in the Pacific though. So what can be? The current El Niño has managed to stir up a lot of trouble since it first started gathering strength in the spring of 2015. According to NOAA and NASA, 2015 was the hottest year on record with 10 of the 12 months the warmest months on record. El Niño influenced moisture moving into South America which contributed to above average rainfall and flooding across Argentina, Peru, and Guatemala, and drought conditions across Brazil. Millions of fish and marine life are also impacted by the above average sea surface temperatures. They are forced to change their normal migration and reproduction patterns which can put different species in danger.

In the United States, severe weather, including tornadoes, occurred across the South and Midwest in December. Flooding from heavy rain across the south throughout the year and heavy rain and mountain snow in California, early in 2016, can both be linked to El Niño. It was also the second most active Pacific hurricane season on record, with 26 named storms and 11 major hurricanes. The warmer sea surface temperatures in the Pacific certainly help fuel hurricane development and growth. According to the Climate Prediction Center, we will see a gradual weakening of El Niño through Spring 2016 and will transition to a more neutral period by the summer which means we will start seeing less impacts that can be connected back to the Pacific.



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