El Niño is Brewing Wet Winter for South
By Patrick O'Driscoll, USA TODAY
A new episode of the El Niño weather phenomenon could bring drought relief this winter to parts of the Southwest, but the hurricane-soaked Southeast may get more rain than it needs.
Meteorologists say El Niño, which makes winters wetter and cooler in the southern USA, is back after a two-year absence. It's likely to bring more rain than normal to Southern California, southeast Arizona and the Gulf Coast states.
A mild to moderate El Niño will persist into early 2005 or later, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Wednesday in its first weather outlook for winter. Besides more storms and cold in Southern regions, it could be drier and warmer than average in the Pacific Northwest, Midwest and northern Plains.
In addition to El Niño, another climate effect called the North Atlantic Oscillation could make this winter colder in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast. The oscillation influences the path of jet streams, bands of high-altitude winds that steer storms across the continent.
El Niño, Spanish for "little boy," is an unusual warming of tropical waters in the eastern Pacific. In the 19th century, Peruvian fishermen named it for the Christ child because it would show up around Christmas. It can cause drought in Australia and Indonesia and floods in parts of South America.
In a strong year, it can trigger major events in the USA, such as the St. Patrick's Day blizzard that buried Denver in March 2003.
Although this season's forecast is for a weaker occurrence, Pacific water temperatures have been flirting with El Niño status for a year. The result is a "more volatile" and unpredictable season, says Klaus Wolter, a research scientist at NOAA's Climate Diagnostics Center in Boulder, Colo.
"It's all in flux," he says. "I'm not prepared to say it will stay weak or moderate. Every El Niño is different, and every time we figure it out, it throws us a curve."
Besides relieving dryness in Southern California and Arizona, El Niño could save winter fuel costs in some Northern states.
But it isn't likely to help Alaska with more rain and snow. Record warmth there this year helped spark wildfires that charred a record 10,000 square miles.
El Niño's stronger winds moving east across the tropics also tend to squelch Atlantic hurricanes. But Wolter says this year's episode started too late to disrupt the major storms that blasted Florida and the Southeast.
Published October 7, 2004