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The El Niño Has Peaked. Now What?

This image shows the satellite sea surface temperature differences for the month of October 2015, where orange-red colors are above normal, indicating an El Niño."

More storms are likely along the Pacific coast, especially California as we move into 2016. Sea surface temperatures from the El Niño are going down slightly, which will energize the storm track – but not in Colorado.

“And repeated storms, I mean the main thing with El Niño is that you get one storm after another,” said Klaus Wolter, a climatologist with the University of Colorado-Boulder.

“Any individual storm, it would be really hard to say if it is an El Niño storm. The fact that you get a lot of them makes all the difference.”

Researchers use complex modeling including data from buoys covering about 3,500 miles of the tropical Pacific to predict large climate events like El Niño - all while keeping an eye on the past. Those buoys relay data including sea surface temperature, which Wolter thinks has probably peaked.

“Those [temperature] anomalies are running about 5 degrees Fahrenheit or more. So when I say it’s going down, it has dropped off maybe half a degree Fahrenheit since its peak in November…it will be plenty warm into next year, it takes a long time to get back to zero.”

Credit NOAA

According to Wolter, the storm track will head south, over California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. The slight sea surface temperature difference is one of the reasons the storm track will shift to the west coast and states south of Colorado.

“In terms of the storm track, the Pacific jet in particular will be energized,” Wolter said. “There’s this fire hose effect of when you have an El Niño, you just get a strong storm track it slushes up and down the coast which is what happened in 1982 and 1983.”

Wolter thinks there is a good chance those storms will hit Northern California in January and February. That’s good news for a state that is in one of the worst droughts seen in hundreds of years. The majority of California’s reservoirs are located in the northern half of the state.  

“The odds of Northern California getting a decent winter, maybe even 150 percent of normal is really enhanced with an El Niño of this size.”

In Colorado, we’ll have to wait to collect our snow. January and February mark a typical lull in an El Niño winter.

“Now going forward, this is the big downer for an El Niño, we [Colorado] tend to dry out in the middle of the winter and when I say middle, I mean January,” Wolter said.

March is historically Colorado’s snowiest month, but past El Niño data indicates that we’re in for a snowier month than usual.

“People may remember March 2003, which was not a particularly strong El Niño, and in 2010 we had two [storms] in a row within a week….Just imagine our last big storm, but twice in one week.”

Animated map of currents and sea surface temperatures courtesy of Cameron Beccario.

Temperatures during an El Niño winter in Colorado are a “crap shoot” according to Wolter.

“If you get the snow, it can get much colder than if you don’t get it. So if you look at historically, the tendency for winter temperatures here on the Front Range, some have been very cold and some have been very mild and to me the difference is the snow. And that means that every time it clears out and every time the wind dies down a bit it’s going to get cold. In general we should get more calm days.”

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