Winter Storm Jonas, the incredibly powerful snowstorm surging towards the East Coast right now, is gaining in size and strength. We’re also right in the middle of the most powerful El Niño we’ve seen yet. Is El Niño the reason this storm is so savage?
“It really does set the background for this storm to develop and track the way it is tracking,” Louis Uccellini director of NOAA’s National Weather told us this afternoon of the role El Niño may have played. Of course, pegging any storm just to El Niño is pretty impossible. Still, strong El Niño winters tend to be warmer, wetter, and stormier than usual and considering how closely 2015-2016 has been mirroring 1997-98 so far, it’s an especially interesting El Niño winter to look back on.
Top image: GIF map made using NOAA’s water vapor mapping tool; Bottom map : Map of heavier precipitation areas during strong El Niño years
Mike Halpert, the deputy director of NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, was quick to point out to Gizmodo that a big difference between this oncoming storm and 1998's winter El Niño was that the storms 18 years ago were actually exceptionally light on snow.
“That winter is one of only two winters in over 50 years that saw less than one inch of snow fall in Washington DC,” he told us. “The overall pattern favors above-normal temperatures for the winter in the Northeast, but you can certainly get a snowstorm and still have monthly and seasonal temperatures be above normal.”
So does that mean that El Niño won’t be involved in this weekend’s weather? Not quite. The warmer temperatures that are predicted in many parts may play a big role in what we do (or don’t) end up seeing this weekend.
What we saw in 1998 was a double whammy: an unusually warm winter (much like this one) and a record-shattering year in terms of winter precipitation—including one of the worst ice storms in memory in January, stretching all along the East Coast, with heavy flooding a little further south. North Carolina got 16 inches of freezing rain in a single day.
Image: Powerlines in an ice storm, NOAA/ NWS
What does that tell us about this weekend? If you look at forecasts, especially in the DC and Baltimore area, predictions have ranged from between 20 to 30 inches. But the further away you move from that region, figuring out just what’s going to happen this weekend, and what warmer temperatures will have to do with it (if anything), is a bit less clear.
In the National Weather Service’s forecasts for New York yesterday, they admitted that they weren’t really sure what—whether rain, snow, or some mix thereof—would end up falling from the sky. As of this morning, they’ve updated the forecast to say that they believe the storm will at least start out as snow, but as the day goes on, it could warm up enough that it switches to sleet or even rain. Meanwhile, further south in Kentucky and North Carolina, they’re looking at large ice storms moving into the area.
Of course, the predictions are still fluctuating. But what we’ve seen of what happens when warmer temperatures and strong storms collide in 1998 suggests that whatever we end up seeing this weekend will be intense.
Follow the author at @misra.