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We're All in For a Crazy Winter Thanks to El Niño

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Whether or not you’re directly in the path of the impending monster El Niño, if you live in the United States you’re probably going to feel its effects this winter. Yesterday, NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center issued the US Winter Outlook, and the long and short of it is we’re all in for some serious weather weirdness.

Hotter, colder, wetter or drier-than-usual conditions are expected to prevail across nearly every region of the US this winter. The key culprit here is the powerful El Niño now brewing over the eastern Pacific ocean. Abnormally warm surface ocean waters are pushing the jet stream south, veering it off its normal course. As a result, storms that would typically track over the Pacific Northwest are instead predicted to make landfall over the Southwest, alleviating drought conditions in one part of the country while exacerbating them in another.


Temperature - U.S. Winter Outlook: 2015-2016 Image Credit: NOAA


Precipitation - U.S. Winter Outlook: 2015-2016 Image Credit: NOAA

According to NOAA, wetter-than-average conditions are expected to prevail across most of the Southern and Southwestern US this winter. The torrential El Niño rains probably won’t be enough to end the four-year dry spell in central and southern California — as Mike Halpert, deputy director of NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center puts it, “California would need close to twice its normal rainfall to get out of drought and that’s unlikely.” But they will offer much-welcome relief. Meanwhile, other parts of the Southwest could see an end to drought conditions entirely.

Contrast that with the situation in the Pacific Northwest and northern Rockies, where water scarcity woes are just revving up. These regions experienced an abnormally dry spring and summer, the result being that some of the wettest forests on the planet burned for the first time in memory. Drought conditions will likely persist in the Northwest this winter, which could mean another year of low snowpack and another summer of horrific fire.

Those living in the Western US, Northeast, Alaska or Hawaii can expect an unusually mild winter, while folks living in the southern Plains and Southeast will probably have to crank up the heat. Of course, other factors besides the jet stream play into winter weather, particularly severe storms. Just because the Northeast is expecting generally mild temperatures doesn’t mean it won’t get walloped by a nor’easter or two. And it’s worth reiterating that these are all just predictions. This winter could end up being totally unremarkable.


But if our track record this year is any indicator, the days of pairing the word “unremarkable” with weather and climate patterns are fast disappearing.


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Top image: Wikimedia