Sunday, June 15, 2014

United States El Niño impacts

Mike Halpert at By this point, most of you have heard that it looks like El Niño is coming, and maybe you’re wondering why you should care.  After all, why should it matter if the tropical Pacific Ocean becomes warmer than average? That’s thousands of miles away from the continental United States.  Well, it turns out that El Niño often results in changes in the patterns of precipitation and temperature across many parts of the globe, including North America (Ropelewski and Halpert 1987, Halpert and Ropelewski 1992).

...By examining seasonal climate conditions in previous El Niño years, scientists have identified a set of typical impacts associated with the phenomenon (Figure 1). “Associated with” doesn’t mean that all of these impacts happen during every El Niño episode. However, they happen more often during El Niño than you’d expect by chance, and many of them have occurred during many El Niño events.

In general, El Niño-related temperature and precipitation impacts across the United States occur during the cold half of the year (October through March). The most reliable of these signals (the one that has been observed most frequently) is wetter-than-average conditions along the Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida during this 6-month period. This relationship has occurred during more than 80% of the El Niño events in the past 100 years.

Over California and the Southwest, the relationship between El Niño and above-average precipitation is weaker, and it depends significantly on the strength of the El Niño. The stronger the episode (i.e., the larger the sea surface temperature departures across the central equatorial Pacific are), the more reliable the signal in this region has been.

...Elsewhere over the United States, El Niño impacts are associated with drier conditions in the Ohio Valley, and there is a less-reliable dry signal in the Pacific Northwest and the northern Rockies. Hawaii also often experiences lower-than-average rainfall totals from the late fall through early spring period.

The climate impacts linked to El Niño help forecasters make skillful seasonal outlooks. While not guaranteed, the changes in temperature and precipitation across the United States are fairly reliable and often provide enough lead time for emergency managers, businesses, government officials, and the public to properly prepare and make smart decisions to save lives and protect livelihoods....

Figure 1. Average location of the Pacific and Polar Jet Streams and typical temperature and precipitation impacts during the winter over North America. Map by Fiona Martin for NOAA

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