El Nino is a term that we hear and read, but it has little meaning to most people. Weather forecasts mention El Nino, and it may occasionally make an appearance in a headline, but the phenomenon remains largely a mystery. El Nino actually matters on an everyday basis, and knowing a few facts will make it much less mysterious.
What is El Nino?
In its simplest definition, El Nino is a period of unusually warm temperatures in the Pacific Ocean. El Nino occurs when the winds near the equator switch from their normal prevailing winds east to west to wind gusts moving west to east.
El Nino and its opposite, La Nina, occur regularly, even though media may not pay attention to the milder periods. El Nino can occur every 3-5 years, but a 7 year cycle is fairly common.
Some El Nino cycles can be quite mild and other El Nino cycles can be severe. The El Nino occurrence of 1997 to 1998 made headlines because it was one of the most severe on record. It started in late spring of 1997, picked up speed with a deadly hurricane in Acapulco, and caused massive flooding along the west coast of the U.S. with torrential rains for months.
El Nino’s effects
An El Nino has been developing in 2015 that scientists are saying could be one of the strongest in recent memory. As warmer waters develop in the Pacific and move eastward, weather changes may develop that affect us. Warmer waters negatively impact fish populations, which can have an ecological impact and a financial impact on Pacific countries. Storms may drop higher levels of rain across the southern portion of the US, including the drought-plagued California region. Winter temperatures can also be colder in these regions, while the northern states may experience warmer winter temperatures.
El Nino events impact us in a couple of important ways. One, they obviously impact our weather, from atypical snowfall to storm-related damages to lost productivity from snow and ice days. A warmer winter in the north can mean low snowfall totals which means drought conditions the following season. Drought conditions increase wildfire risks and affect agricultural production. In southern regions, massive rainfalls in areas can cause flooding of residential areas, along with mudslides and sinkholes.
NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, provides regular updates of weather activity. Their recent updates already show heavier than average snowfall is on hand for much of the country, although autumn temps were much warmer than normal. This El Nino event seems to be on course to be a strong one, lasting well into the spring of 2016.
El Nino is a weather phenomenon that matters on a day to day basis. Whether it causes water rationing because of drought, lost work days because of dangerous ice and temperatures, or increased food prices because of decreased agricultural production, a strong El Nino has a direct impact on our daily lives. Understanding a bit of background on El Nino events will help you understand weather in the upcoming months.