Saturday, June 15, 2024

The strong El Niño may have already peaked

| February 5, 2024 1:05 AM

As of late January, ocean waters along the equatorial regions are still very warm and forecasters who carefully watch the trends of ocean warming and cooling have indicated that we still have a strong El Niño in the south-central Pacific Ocean. El Niño is the abnormal warming of sea-surface temperatures near the West Coast of South America and along the Equatorial Pacific. By contrast, a La Niña is the abnormal cooling of ocean waters. From 2020 through early 2023, we had a weak-to-moderate La Niña event.

However, within the last month, there have been signs that this El Niño may have peaked or is at least showing signs of weakening. Currently, much of the planet’s oceans are still warmer than normal, especially in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans. Despite the warmer waters, we’ve observed some very unusually cold weather in January.

For example, very frigid weather plunged into the U.S. with record cold and snows also reported across parts of northern Europe. Australia, which is normally in its drier period, experienced record rainfall across the southern and eastern portions of the continent.

In our part of the country, from Jan. 12-15, we had some of the coldest weather in recent memory. A record-breaking minus 17 degrees was reported at Cliff’s station Jan. 13 as wind chill temperatures were down to near minus 40 degrees that day.

Our average high temperature for Coeur d’Alene last month was only 32 degrees. The normal January high for the region is about 36 degrees. In terms of the average low temperature for January, it was 22 degrees compared to a normal of 25 degrees.

Snowfall last month ended up at 17.8 inches, which was below the normal of 21.4 inches. Coeur d’Alene’s precipitation total was also a little below the average of 3.77 inches as we picked up 3.56 inches of moisture in January. The normal seasonal snowfall for Coeur d’Alene is 69.8 inches, but our final total for 2023-24 will probably end up around 40 inches.

The latest sea-surface temperature forecasts from the U.S. Climate Prediction Center are indicating that El Niño will be gradually weakening and transitioning to a “La Nada,” the in-between El Niño and La Niña event, perhaps as soon as March to May of this year. We’re already starting to see indications of this cooling as sea-surface temperatures along the immediate coastline of the western coastline of South America are getting close to normal. According to the latest computer forecasts, the most likely time we’ll move into the La Nada period would be from April to June.

As sea-surface temperatures have been flipping from warmer than normal to cooler than normal in a short period, especially in the last 10 years, there is also an increasing chance of a new cooler La Niña quickly forming after the La Nada event. Therefore, it’s very possible that we could see one forming by late this year, or in early 2025.

For those who are disappointed with the below-normal snowfall for the 2023-24 season, this may be good news as our region will often experience better snowfalls when ocean waters along the equatorial regions are cooler. It’s still very early to see a definite trend, but the current indications of this El Niño weakening may be pointing to cooler sea-surface temperatures around late 2024.

Speaking of snowfall, Coeur d’Alene has only received 26.6 inches through the first weekend of February. The long-range computer models are now pointing to drier than normal weather for the next 10 days across the Inland Northwest. We’ll likely have to wait until the middle to the end of this month for a better chance of snow.

After the unusually frigid start to 2024, weather patterns are now looking more like those under the influence of El Niño. California has been receiving heavier than normal rainfall thanks to the infamous “Pineapple Connection” of warmer and wetter tropical air feeding into the state. For this week, most of the Pacific moisture is expected to go to our south and bring the moisture to California.

The strong El Niño did strengthen the sub-tropical jet stream, especially in late January. Therefore, there is also the chance of above-normal rainfall in Southern California and the Desert Southwest over the next few months.

On another note, Feb. 2 was “Groundhog Day,” and Punxsutawney Phil did not see his shadow Friday morning. According to the legend, when the infamous groundhog does not see his shadow, spring is expected to arrive early. For the previous three years, Phil did see his shadow and forecasted a longer winter season. Thanks to the effects of El Niño, Cliff and I also believe that spring will be arriving a bit earlier than usual in Coeur d’Alene and surrounding regions. Stay tuned.

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