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El Niño Returns This Winter: But What Exactly are El Niño and La Niña?



El Niño Returns This Winter: But What Exactly are El Niño and La Niña?

No need to break out the parkas and prepare for the arctic cold, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA)’s weather predictions this year. A weak El Niño —  and therefore a mild-weathered winter — is anticipated for much of the United States, though they note that even in warm predicted patterns, cold temperatures and snowfall is still possible. No extreme or below average temperatures are expected, and warmer than average conditions are expected across the north and west U.S. Droughts may continue across Southern California, the Central Great Basin and Rockies, the Northern Plains and Pacific Northwest. Precipitation is expected to be wetter than average across the southern tier of the US.

To the layperson, weather scientists seem to pull weather predictions from thin air in the form of science and calculations like ancient mystics staring into the depths of crystal or quartz. In reality, NOAA climatologists create these forecasts by deciphering the Southern Oscillation Cycle and generating moving color blob maps from satellite calculations, weather patterns and recorded ocean temperatures.

Still, what do the esoteric terms mean? What is the El Niño Southern Oscillation Cycle (ENSO)?

Ocean temperatures directly influence weather patterns, and the ENSO is a targeted look at surface sea temperatures that interact with the atmosphere across the east-central Equatorial Pacific, which create climate impacts on North and South America. So how does the ENSO equate to small children of a specific gender, El Niño and La Niña? Simply, El Niño is the warm phase, and La Niña is the cold phase. The actual naming of these patterns is rooted in history — fisherman off the coast of South America named El Niño in the 1600s after noticing unusually warm water in the Pacific during December.

During an El Niño weather pattern, warm surface water off the coast of South America is created by trade winds interacting with atmospheric temperatures and the surface of the ocean. These warm surface waters push air currents carrying heavier-than-normal precipitation towards the southern United States. The southern movement of the air current leaves a wake behind of a mild and dry (potential drought like) climate over the northern U.S. and Canada. El Niño periods can initiate heavier warm trade winds, and may instigate an opposing reaction, La Niña: a cold period signifying opposing weather patterns in essence. These patterns, though irregular, occur every two to seven years, with El Niño occurring more often.

Whether based off of 400 years of noticing the ocean temperature, or intricate and elaborate scientific calculation, El Niño weather brings warm tidings for this year’s winter.



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