El Niño will lead to a potentially warmer or wetter winter in parts of the U.S. this year, according to a forecast released Thursday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
But don’t worry, snow lovers. El Niño – a natural ocean and weather pattern in the tropical Pacific – could also lead to a higher chance of snow in some atypical locations and trigger stronger snowstorms in the Northeast, forecasters said.
According to NOAA, El Niño is expected to be strong this winter, reaching the highest levels since a very strong El Niño in 2015 and 2016 brought the warmest winter on record for the continental United States.
While no two El Niño winters are the same, this shift typically brings wetter and cooler weather in the south, while drier and warmer weather in the north.
And that’s exactly what’s expected this winter. Much of the northern United States is likely to see above-average temperatures, according to the NOAA forecast.
Parts of the Northwest, Great Lakes and Northeast will have the highest chance of above average temperatures. This will be a dramatic change for parts of the Northwest after last winter ended cooler than the region’s average.
It will be another warm winter for the Great Lakes and Northeast. According to NOAA, last winter was one of the warmest on record for both regions.
When forecasters predict above-average temperatures for an entire season, it doesn’t mean there won’t be a cold, just that old bouts will occur less frequently and last for shorter periods of time.
Outside an area of near-normal temperatures expected for parts of Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas and Texas, there is no strong signal in the rest of the U.S., according to NOAA. Much of the southern half of the country has equal chances of being near normal, above normal, or below normal.
The same does not apply to precipitation.
Above-average precipitation is expected this winter across a large area of the southern United States, from the Plains to the Southeast. This precipitation could come in the form of rain, snow, or an icy mix of both.
For some states struggling with severe drought, including Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, more rainfall would be welcome news.
Southern cities like Lubbock, Texas, and Little Rock, Arkansas average less than 8 inches of snow per year, but even these minimal amounts increase during an El Niño winter.
This southern precipitation pattern is one of the winter signatures of El Niño. El Niño tends to shift the jet stream south across the United States. Because the jet stream is essentially a current of air through which storms travel, storms can then move more frequently across the South, increasing the chance of precipitation.
The mid-Atlantic and far southern New England are also likely to see more precipitation than normal this winter. El Niño typically favors a less active west-east storm track across the northern U.S., but the Northeast will still be vulnerable to snowy northeasterly winds.
According to Jon Gottschalck, head of the Operational Prediction Branch of NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, northeasterly winds can be “stirred up” by abundant tropical moisture during an El Niño winter, producing on average “two to three major snowstorms.”
“With the right timing, these storms can really explode off the east coast,” explained Gottschalck.
Typically, during an El Niño winter, much of the Northeast experiences less snow than normal – both in inner cities like Albany, New York, and in coastal cities like Boston.
But this winter, much of the region has an equal chance of seeing near-normal, above-average or below-average precipitation.
“There is hope for snow lovers,” Gottschalck said.
Drier weather is likely in other parts of the northern United States, which is fairly typical for an El Niño winter. NOAA’s outlook highlights the northern Rockies and the Great Lakes as the places most likely to experience less than average precipitation this winter.
Portions of the central and southern Rocky Mountains and the central Plains will be wetter than average this winter.
Near or above normal rainfall would help drought-stricken states such as Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska. Water levels in parts of the Mississippi River have fallen to historic lows due to the ongoing drought, and these levels may rebound over the winter.
A wet winter is also expected in large parts of California. The state was hit by many atmospheric river events in rapid succession last winter through early spring, resulting in one of the wettest winters in the state’s history, according to NOAA.
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