El Nino forecasts are climbing

courtesy pexels.com and Alejandro Anzola

HOUSTON – One advice about TED talks is never start with a graph, so why not start this ‘graphy’ El Nino blog with a cool photo of the staircase traversing the Peñón de Guatape which is an outcrop of the Antioquia Batholith and towers up to 656 feet above its base. You can walk the 702 steps to the top next time you’re in Colombia!

And that brings us to South America, one of the spots hit hardest by a strong El Nino, although the ‘teleconnections’ across the globe affect us all. In simple terms, warming water and warming air create a domino effect of floods, droughts, heat, storms and their associated effects of destruction and, unfortunately, deaths throughout the world. Here’s a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) example of how El Nino permeates our whole world:

courtesy International Research Institute

The problem is the extremes -- too hot, too wet, too dry which leads to wildfires, or floods, or droughts and all that goes with that from insect issues to agriculture challenges to destroyed ecosystems.

To determine if an El Nino is developing we look at the sea surface temperatures in a particular part of the Pacific known as the Nino 3.4 region where an average of the equatorial Pacific temperatures is taken. You can see that region below and also where I’ve noted temperatures in that region are above normal:

courtesy NOAA
courtesy tropicaltidbits.com

So the question is just how strong is this El Nino going to be because the warmer, the worse. We use a rolling three-month average of those Pacific temperatures called the ONI, the Oceanic Nino Index and anything above .5° is considered an El Nino. The latest overall model forecasts for the rest of the year keep the El Nino relatively weak (but, there is a but). I’ve highlighted that red “average of the models” line and you’ll see it stays below 1°C. By comparison, a warming of 1-2° is strong and above 2° is extreme.

courtesy International Research Institute

BUT, here’s the but, this is just the beginning and an El Nino cycle easily lasts two to three years and can climb like Columbian stairs. The European model, which did a great job forecasting the extreme 2014-2016 El Nino, predicts an ever stronger system:

courtesy ECMWF

By the end of the year, the European Model has at the very least a moderate El Nino with perhaps an extreme one.

What can we learn from any of this? Get flood insurance. I’m not being flip. The extreme El Nino of 2014-2016 was when Texas experienced devastating floods and, locally, we had the 2015 Memorial Day flood and 2016 Tax Day flood. History is a very good teacher.

Finally, a dry few days! Enjoy!


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About the Authors:

KPRC 2's chief meteorologist with four decades of experience forecasting Houston's weather.

Amanda Cochran is an Edward R. Murrow award-winning journalist. She specializes in Texas features, consumer and business news and local crime coverage.