When our Digital Content Manager asked me to write an article on what exactly El Niño is I quickly said, “Sure! That’ll be easy!” Then he said, “But Derek, make it so people can understand”. Oh, right. That will require a little thinking. But I think we can do this.
The first thing to understand when it comes to El Niño is this: what happens in the ocean can drastically affect weather patterns. We all remember Rube Goldberg machines? Well, in a way it’s like that. One thing impacts this, than this changes that, and that affects this.
Get it? Of course not: I haven’t really explained anything yet… but I will.
El Niño specifically is when warm water in flows away from Eastern Australia and toward the West Coast of South/Central America. Trade winds (that typically blow east to west) weaken and allow the warmer water to spread east. This directly impacts the fisherman of areas like Peru (warm water doesn’t have as many nutrients as cold water) but indirectly impacts the REST OF THE WORLD!
The ocean and atmosphere are closely connected (see: paragraph 2). A change in either can impact sea surface temps, or air pressure, or ocean circulation, or rainfall, or atmospheric circulation or The Lions offensive scheme that week (just kidding about that last one). When warm water moves east, that changes the global wind patterns. When wind patterns change we get different “blobs” of air and moisture shoved at us. And in the case of El Niño… we get warmer and drier “blobs” here in Michigan. So El Niño = warmer temps, not as much snow for Michigan. In fact, that last 2 times we had an El Niño like this were 1997/98 and 1982/83. And here’s what happened there:
1997/98 - 5th warmest winter of all time, 15th least amount of snow ever
1982/83 - 7th warmest winter of all time, 11th least amount of snow ever
So what does all this mean for this year? Well, so far November has been about 6 degrees warmer than normal. So, 1 for 1 I guess. December is forecast to be warmer and drier than normal; January will be warmer and drier than normal; and February will be a little warmer with near average amount of snow. Obviously all of this is relative to what “normal” is… so take a look at the graphic below. When we say December will be warmer than normal, we’re saying that high temps will, on average, be warmer than 36.1. Highs in January will, on average, be warmer than 32. You get the picture.
Now, here’s the “weatherperson caveat”: seasonal forecasting can be difficult as we are always at risk for an extremely cold stretch, or a big snow storm. That is normal. But just like a batting champion is crowned at the end of the season (when all the stats are averaged together) monthly averages work the same way. So don’t get all over my case if there is a 3 day stretch with highs in the teens!
El Niño can last for 3 months to 2 years… but this one is expected to start weakening in late Spring/early Summer. Does that mean the weather is going to suck come April? Nope. It just means we will get more typical weather for those months.
Oh and in case you didn’t know, El Niño is in fact Spanish for “The Niño”.