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Fact Checking El Niño, Part Tres


Photo: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

In our final installment, our meteorologist breaks down where El Niño stands—and fact checks some headlines while he’s at it.

At Mountain, we keep our Google News Feed tuned to El Niño for the latest on the phenomenon, which historically has brought big snowfall to a few key mountain ranges. To check the hype, we’re running the stories by ski country meteorologist, Nick Barlow, a guide at Colorado’s Powder Addiction Cat Skiing and lead forecaster at Barlometer.com.

Where We Currently Stand

This season’s El Niño is now officially the second strongest on record, trumped only by the 97/98 event. There is a 95 percent chance of El Niño persisting through winter 2015/16, as predicted by NOAA in this month’s update, although all models still point towards the index weakening in the spring. And the climax? Some models point towards a peak in November/December/January, while others suggest we may have hit (or are nearing) our peak here in October.

So El Niño is definitely here, but to have any luck in predicting more than that, it’s important to look at this year’s strong El Niño in contrast with conditions throughout the rest of the Pacific Basin. Typically, El Niño spawns an anomalously warm pool of water generally confined to the east equatorial Pacific. That’s now undeniable, but the forecasting caveat is that much of the neighboring northern Pacific and eastern Pacific are also anomalously warm right now. As a result, the contrast in water temperatures is not as strong as in past events. Whether this will nullify some of El Niño’s effects, or enhance the phenomenon, remains to be seen. This year’s El Nino is different from events we’ve observed in the past.

Snakes on the Beach! San Jose Mercury News, October 19, 2015

Synopsis: El Niño deposits venomous sea snakes to California beaches.

Barlow’s Take: Venomous sea snakes in Southern California? Count me out. Humans are already at a great disadvantage in the oceans. Add slithering, killing-machines to the mix, and perhaps it’s best to stay in the mountains.

This article does raise some interesting questions about the important role of the oceans. There have been a few El Niño-driven stories this fall about abnormal wildlife behavior and migration patterns around the world. I’m no wildlife biologist, but it’s important to keep studying these events while not pointing the finger at El Niño unjustly. Cause and effect in climate study is never as clear as some journalists like to proclaim.

Still, the article includes a blanket statement that El Niño will mean a 60 percent chance of heavy rain in Los Angeles this winter. What does “heavy rain” mean? When is the heavy-rain coming? That seems like a misinterpretation of a meteorological product. There’s no data out there to back it up.

El Niño: Nice Year for a White Winter? The Press-Enterprise, October 17, 2015

Synopsis: The Billy Idol allusion in the headline asks whether El Niño will actually bring a good ski season to California.

Barlow’s Take: We’re off to a bad start here with the following pronouncement: “Scientists say it’s a sure bet now that Inland Southern California will have a wet winter.” The article attributes the statement to anonymous “scientists,” which definitely pushes my buttons. I wonder what kind of “scientists” they have on the pay role at this publication? Certainly not meteorologists. There are no sure bets concerning winter weather and El Niño. All we can do is look for trends observed during past years. Not every El Niño event has brought a “wet winter” to Southern California.

In this article’s defense, Southern California is precisely where the greatest influences from El Niño may be felt. An amplified southern stream (subtropical jet stream) often results during strong El Niño years. This could place a persistent storm track across the southern tier of the United States, including Southern California.

The article improves when they finally bring a PHD to the table. He raises the question of snow levels. It’s very possible the moisture will occur, he says, but it may fall as rain, even in the higher mountains of the Sierra or much further north in coastal Alaska. The coldest air along with the northern polar jet stream could end up too far north to drive snow levels down.

Great Santa’s Beard: 200 Percent Snowfall for Aspen in December The Aspen Times, Oct 18, 2015

Synopsis: According to the headline, Aspen is gonna get pounded by snow in December.

Barlow’s Take: Steve Root, of AccuWeather, doesn’t like prescriptive pronouncements about how El Niño guarantees a snowy winter throughout the country.

Me neither, Mr. Root. But then he offers a somewhat bold forecast—perhaps too specific for my liking. Everything else aside, his analysis is spot-on, although his data is limited simply due to the fact that we don’t have a huge number of El Niño cases to study.

As it happens, a similar statistical study was conducted by NWS Grand Junction’s climate division this past month. It too studied snowfall totals from locations throughout the state of Colorado during El Niño years. The main takeaway was that Aspen did actually fare well in these years, and also that many locations experienced a mid-winter “lull.” As mentioned previously, El Niño’s greatest effects are often experienced during the fall and late spring periods.

“I look at El Niños as a four-inch fire hose,” says Root. “When somebody turns that fire hose on, you don’t really know where that thing is going to spray. It can spray where it did last time or it can spray in a completely different area.”

That’s a great metaphor for El Niños. Yet, in my opinion, the specifics of his forecast are dangerous; most meteorologists are not willing to offer specific numbers like Root does. You run the risk of predicting outside of the science as a whole. Yet Steve works for Accuweather, home of the “45-day forecast.” Should you trust any weather forecast beyond 10 days (especially one offering specifics)? Absolutely not. 

Hey Joey! Bust Out Your Umbrella! New England Cable News, October 12, 2015

Synopsis: El Niño should bring a slightly warmer winter to most of New England.

Barlow’s Take: The article’s portrayal of a “typical El Niño year” is a bit suspect. There’s really no basis to suggest a “never-ending stream of Pacific Storms” that is directly attributed to El Niño. Pacific systems are common during all cold seasons. Also, suggesting the storm track in California has been “quiet” is not entirely accurate. Southern California has seen several atypical rain events this summer and already this fall. Climatological records have been broken in many locations for daily rainfall, as well as monthly rainfall totals. But yes, they still need moisture to ease the drought—a lot of it.

The article’s statement that, “we’re nearly certain the winter of 2015-16 won’t come close to rivaling the seasonal record snow of last year in Southern New England” is kind of baseless, but yes, I would hope we don’t break climatological records every year. Otherwise, we might need to reassess our climatology.

The rest of the assessment falls into the “fair” to “borderline” category; the article doesn’t reach too much. It presents predictions that line-up with “typical” El Niño winters—a persistent southern storm track, generally warmer temperatures, etc. The analysis also generally agrees with seasonal products we’ve seen this winter from NOAA.

It is also possible that Boston could have another brutal winter, but there are some signs that it might not be as cold. There are many questions out there that don’t have a clear answer. When can we start talking about the “Polar Vortex” again and put this El Niño talk to bed? It’s amazing how quickly we forget one sensationalized weather phenomenon in favor of another.

It’s a Great Time to be a Weather Geek Phys.org October 19, 2015

Synopsis: NASA is studying El Niño with unprecedented capabilities. We’ll learn a lot.

Barlow’s Take: Weather satellites are getting really good. We’ve seen huge advancements in this technology in a relatively short period of time. Instead of simply taking a picture of the earth, satellites can now remotely derive meteorological quantities, study different levels of the atmosphere, and output real-time data for modeling and forecasting.

In general, there is a lack of data, and specifically, reliable data for better modeling. This is a big reason why numerical modeling reliability can be a problem. We understand that laws and equations of physics govern the atmosphere, but if the data we put into the models is sparse or errant, the equations will integrate incorrectly.

The hope is that new satellites like these will “fill the gap” between data sources. In my opinion, however, we’re still many years away from truly understanding how El Niño influences global weather. Better technology and a stronger record of observations is how we’re going to get there, but that will take time.

Meanwhile, here’s hoping for snow.

See our original El Niño report, on where you should place your bets for snowfall this season, along with our first installment of Fact Checking El Niño and part dos.

2 Responses to “Fact Checking El Niño, Part Tres”

  1. Bruce

    Thanks for the El Nino article…..but did you know that there is life east of Colorado?


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