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Weathercatch: A returning El Nino could mean a milder, less snowy, winter

Josh Malone clears off his driveway, Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2015, in Spokane, Wash. A weather pattern partly linked with El Nino has turned winter upside-down across the U.S. during a week of heavy holiday travel, bringing springlike warmth to the Northeast, a risk of tornadoes in the South and so much snow across the West that even skiing slopes have been overwhelmed. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Josh Malone clears off his driveway, Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2015, in Spokane, Wash. A weather pattern partly linked with El Nino has turned winter upside-down across the U.S. during a week of heavy holiday travel, bringing springlike warmth to the Northeast, a risk of tornadoes in the South and so much snow across the West that even skiing slopes have been overwhelmed. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Having just emerged from the hottest days of the year so far, what better time to think about our upcoming winter weather?

Though still early, signs are growing that a disruption is brewing in the Pacific Ocean that could profoundly impact weather patterns worldwide.

As announced last week, there’s a 70 percent chance of El Nino conditions from December through February, according to an updated forecast by scientists at the U.S. Climate Prediction Center. That’s a rise from a 64 percent chance predicted only a month earlier.

Which means, El Nino is likely coming back.

The climate phenomenon is triggered by periodic warming of ocean water in the tropical Pacific and influences weather that varies by region. A strong El Nino in the U.S. typically brings warmer than average winters to the Pacific Northwest, lots of rain to California and cool, stormy conditions to the southern-tier states.

You may recall that in winter 2015-16, a robust El Nino threw the Northwest off balance by causing unusually warm weather and a low mountain snowpack that contributed to summertime drought conditions.

There’s no way to know for certain if the now-developing El Nino will ultimately turn into a monster or a shrimp. After all, El Nino is but one factor in a complex global weather machine. Nevertheless, because a powerful one has the potential to shape global weather systems, scientists will continue to assign probabilities based on observations and computational models.

Should an El Nino emerge, how might it affect Washington state? Warmer than normal temperatures, along with less snow at lowland levels and in the mountains.

It’s strange to think that heating-up seawater thousands of miles away could play a role in how many layers of clothes we’ll wear this winter or much snow we’ll have to shovel.

As for the more immediate future, we know with more certainty that shorts, sunglasses, plenty of fans and fire caution will help get us get through the rest of summer. Hot, dry weather that includes periodic heatwaves and intervals of high fire danger are expected.

Nic Loyd is a meteorologist with Washington State University’s AgWeatherNet. Linda Weiford is a WSU news writer and weather geek. Contact: linda.weiford@wsu.edu or nicholas.loyd@wsu.edu.


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