Is This El Niño All It’s Cracked Up to Be?

A NOAA meteorologist breaks it down for us, region by region

Big, bad El Niño is still a big, bad question mark. Photo: Courtesy of NOAA.
Big, bad El Niño is still a big, bad question mark. Photo: Courtesy of NOAA.

You’ve probably heard the biggest, baddest El Niño, a cyclical warming of the ocean that affects weather patterns for the globe, is predicted to strike this winter. Headlines surfacing all over the Internet are calling this the “Godzilla” El Niño—one to rival the El Niño of ’97/98, which caused record-breaking snowfall and flooding throughout the West Coast. There’s nothing like pre-season hype to give us skiers a huge serving of hope with a dash of excitement. Just pray dessert isn’t disappointment pie. Try as we might, El Niño is something we can’t shake.

But before you get too excited, let’s take this monster down a peg or two.

Tom Di Liberto, a meteorologist at the NOAA Climate Predictions Center, set the record straight saying, “I don’t know if it’s favored to be the strongest ever, but I will say it’s certainly favored to be potentially in the top three [in strength].”

While top three is definitely a respectable force, Di Liberto says there are a lot of other factors contributing to snowfall averages each region will experience. El Niño is the strongest player on the team, but we can’t always count on him to show up.

“Mother Nature can always throw a curve ball into the play,” says Di Liberto.

Another misconception people have is that an El Niño means a killer season for all. Unfortunately, it isn’t so. Di Liberto gave us the run down of what to expect. Here’s the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Photo: Courtesy of NOAA.
Surface temperatures taken by NOAA indicate a strong El Niño. Photo: Courtesy of NOAA.

The Good:

The Southwest is predicted to experience above average precipitation. Some say that this could be the answer to break the severe drought in California; however, Di Liberto says this is unlikely. More precipitation could mean more snowfall, but if the temperatures don’t drop, it could just mean a lot of rain.

The southern half of Colorado and Utah are predicted to experience above-average precipitation that will meet with below-average temperatures, giving us above-average snow to shred.

The Bad:

Northern California and the Northeast are difficult to predict. The northern tier of the U.S. typically experiences drier and warmer averages during an El Niño. While Southern California may be getting dumped on, our friends in the northern half of the state may be experiencing something lackluster.

There’s also the infamous blob hanging out off the coast of Alaska. Formed by rigid high atmospheric pressure, the ocean water in this area rose to above-average temperatures causing the West Coast to be drier than normal. Di Liberto says that the blob will persist as long as the high pressure sticks. Because weather is chaotic, there are others who believe the blob is moving south for the winter. If the blob ducks out, this could leave Northern California with some sweet, sweet pow, according to Open Snow’s Bryan Allegretto.

For the Northeast, who the hell knows? Seriously, it’s just straight up unpredictable, according to Di Liberto. So, heads or tails, Vermont? Northern Colorado and Utah are also facing a coin toss.

The Ugly:

El Niño typically means a warm and dry winter for the northern tier of the states, giving the Northwest and North Central regions a mild winter. After a lousy season last year, the truth hurts.

When it comes down to it—humans suck at predicting the weather. For the South, here’s to hoping Mother Nature has a weak arm and El Niño hits the ball out of the park. Up North, we tip our hat to you and hope the odds are in your favor. In any case, we’ll believe it when we see it.