Weather scientists now say this year’s “extreme” El Niño weather phenomenon is the strongest ever recorded, which could mean more abnormal winter weather for all of North America.
The West, which has suffered major drought in recent years, could see significant flooding, much of the Southwest could be colder than normal with bigger snowfalls, while large areas of the Mid-South and northeast have been experiencing warmer than normal weather. Skiers in the eastern states are already complaining of the “snow drought,” thanks to warm temperatures now forecast into January, while moisture-laden storms are dumping snow on ski areas in the western states.
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An El Niño occurs when water temperatures in the eastern Pacific region become warmer than normal; even a slight variation can have a significant impact on weather around the world. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says temperatures at mid-November were the highest ever for the region.
The last strong El Niño, in 1997, brought a record number of Category 5 storms to the northwest Pacific, with two “super typhoons” that had sustained winds of 180 mph and 185 mph. That El Niño was responsible for an estimated 23,000 deaths globally and $35 billion in damages; central Pacific temperatures peaked at 2.8 degrees Celsius above average. The current El Niño peaked at 3.1 degrees C above average at mid-November, and in early December still was at 2.9 degrees C above average. The strongest storm ever measured on Earth, Hurricane Patricia, occurred in October this year.
Peru and Ecuador were hit by the deadliest floods ever, there were devastating floods in India, and at the other extreme, severe drought in Australia, the Caribbean, Brazil, Africa, and elsewhere.
Later in the winter, some forecasters say, things could do something of an about-face, with areas from Texas up to Winnipeg and across the East/Southeast being cold, while the West will be mild.
It’s expected that this El Niño will be weakening by late spring, with a return to more normal weather patterns. NASA says the current El Niño will be more thoroughly observed from space than any of its predecessors, thanks to Earth-observing missions that weren’t in place during the last big event.