They Call Him El Nino

Who remembers Chris Farley’s El Nino character on Saturday Night Live?  I got a pretty good laugh watching it for the first time in nearly two decades.
You can check it out here.  The reality is, El Nino isn’t a wrestler intending to take out Ric Flair, but instead a phenomenon specific to the Eastern Pacific ocean which has an affect on weather throughout North America.  It is worth mentioning though, this SNL skit was recorded during the strongest El Nino recorded to that date in 1997-1998.  I vividly remember how El Nino routinely took the wrap for anything folks were dissatisfied with.

If the weather was bad, it was El Nino’s fault.
If the Red Sox lost, it was El Nino’s fault.
If you had a bad dinner at a restaurant, it was El Nino’s fault.

I think common culture enjoys taking weather phenomena and turning into something that it really isn’t. Lets be honest, outside of the meteorology community, who ever heard of the Polar Vortex prior to two years ago?  Perhaps Saturday Night Live should consider making that a character to take on El Nino in the wrestling ring!

So lets clear a few things up.   Here are a few things everyone should know about El Nino.
1. El Nino is an abnormal warming of the Eastern Pacific Ocean. That’s it. Translated to English, it means the Christ Child, because this phenomenon historically was noticed around Christmas.
2. In turn, the warmer ocean waters in the Eastern Pacific have an affect on weather patterns throughout North America .  It does this by reconfiguring and strengthening the subtropical jet stream.
3. El Nino’s weather affects on North America are felt most during the winter months.  The strength of the El Nino has an effect on weather and is not fully understood.  Most El Nino  years also provide less intense hurricane season in the tropical Atlantic.

Now that we have the basics down, lets take a look at the state of this year’s El Nino by looking at the El Nino Southern Oscillation  (ENSO) Index.   This 2015-2016 El Nino is one of the strongest on record.
Forecast modeling weakens the current El Nino by spring, so this El Nino is specific to the current winter only, and will not carry over into 2016/2017 winter.

The recent lack of snow and very warm December temperatures have people talking.  As you could imagine, in Portland, we’re in the running for the warmest December on record.  Exactly two weeks into December 2015, the month (to date)  ranks 3rd warmest on record. Based on today’s forecast, that should jump up to number one by late next week.   Only one other significant El Nino winter is on the list, the Chris Farley El Nino of 1998.

At first glance, you might think it would be easy to clump all El Nino winter seasons into one to come out with an accurate winter forecast.  After taking a closer look, you’ll see a bit of variability in the previous 7 strongest El Ninos post 1950.  Lets look at seasonal snowfall for those years.
Portland averages 61.8″ annually.  Four of the seven El Nino seasons ended above average in snow.  Three ended below average.  I typically don’t like to use snowfall amount as an accurate measure of winter because of  its variability. Example, one big storm (like the blizzard of 2013), and all of a sudden, it’s a big snow year.  One thing you can take away from this list, our “biggest” snow years (over 100 inches) usually don’t happen during El Nino winters.

I decided to then look at Portland’s average temperature for those same years for the months of December, January, and February.  Here’s the data.
Much like snow, four of those winters were found to be warmer than normal, with three colder.  Since this year’s El Nino is one of the strongest on record, the previous strongest 1998, and 1983 should be give most weight when trying to come out with a projection for the rest of this winter.  Note, both winters were warmer than normal with less snow than normal.

Looking ahead to the rest of meteorological winter, I think our winter forecast issued in September looks reasonable for the northeast.
You can read it in full here.  I see no signs of any major extended periods of below normal cold over the next few weeks.  Here’s NOAA’s projection with the 8 to 14 day forecast which includes the east remaining warmer than normal.

The current December through February forecast remains mostly unchanged from NOAA as well.
The new mid December model run of the JAMSTEC model clearly outlines a return to winter for a large part of the eastern United States.  Note,  here in northern New England this model suggests around normal or slightly above normal temperatures for the winter.
In order to get back to normal, some real winter cold will have to make an appearance over the next two months. A pattern change is likely in January, and it will come in stages.   I’m seeing signs of a change around or shortly after the new year with the arrival of colder temperatures, but  only briefly. There’s a shot at a storm between the 1st and 5th.   That round of cold should be short lived though. I am feeling more and more confident the winter pattern will establish itself by the middle of January. Here is the Euro monthly control which suggests the pattern we were outlining in September  to develop around Jan 12th.

It includes ridging in the west, toughing in the east.  An important piece to our winter season  puzzle here in Maine,  is ridging over the top in Canada.  Based on this, the worse of this winter (relative to normal) is still expected to be south of us here in Maine. Regardless, this pattern would suggest a return to a storm track that would be more conducive to snow.  Snow lovers, be patient, winter will make an appearance.


Charlie Lopresti

About Charlie Lopresti

Charlie makes up the "Weather Part" of CBS News 13s evening edition. A native New Englander, he grew up enjoying the area's exciting and sometimes wild weather.