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The El Niño Effect: Why This Winter is So Warm and Other Climate Conssequences

Updated on January 10, 2016

In November 2014, Buffalo, NY experienced a record breaking blizzard that dumped seven feet of snow on the area in one sitting, stranding dozen of motorists on the highway. It left us all with one very important question: where do you pee when you're stuck in your car by that much snow?

While blizzards are not unusual in the Buffalo area (thanks to lake effect snow), and the locals are used to it, seven feet in November is a rare enough occurrence that scientists could accurately blame the polar vortex for the phenomenon. If you do not know what the polar vortex is, and how it affects the weather in North America, you can read all about it here: Why Last Winter Was So Cold and Will It Continue This Year.

Long story short, the polar vortex is the result of global warming changing the semi-permanent weather system over the arctic regions resulting in movement of cold air masses from the arctic region to parts of North America, such as Canada and, unfortunately, poor Buffalo. Due to these changes in weather patterns, the last few winters have been cold and miserable, a pattern which is projected to prevail for the foreseen future.

However, this year is the exception to the rule, for one reason and one reason only: El Nino.

What Is El Niño?

El Niño is a weather phenomenon that occurs when the Pacific trade winds inexplicably falter not just a few days, but for weeks or months that cuases warm water typically located near Indonesia and the Philippines to creep east long the equator to pool along the coast of South America.

Why this happens is complicated, and not well understood, which is scientist speak for 'we don't know why this happens.' But it occurs quite regularly at varying strengths, and cycles with La Nina, which is a whole other monster.

Every El Niño varies in strength and duration, and scientists expect El Niño 2015 to be one of the strongest events in history. But what does that mean for us?

El Nino Conditions
El Nino Conditions | Source

How El Niño Is Making the Weather Warm in the Northeast

El Niño can cause many serious and sometimes devastating changes to the climate. In the 1982 -83 season alone, it cost an estimated $10 billion in weather-related damage worldwide, according to LiveScience. However, here in the northeastern part of the United States, far away from where El Niño is developing, it is generally not something we really have to worry about, unlike Peru or California. El Niño does have the potential, though, to impact our winter weather.

When a weak or moderate El Niño system develops, it forces the southern jet stream farther north than usual, causing the jet stream to interact with the polar jet stream. Generally, that's bad for the northeastern part of the United States, because it means more snow than usual, something they really don't need more of.

However, a strong El Niño system, like the one this year, forces the southern jet stream even farther north to areas like Buffalo, bringing with it some of that warm, southern air to the northeast. For the northeast, that means relatively little snow, compared to what they usually get, and a warmer, milder winter.

How warm? Take Buffalo as an example, yet again. December 2015 is already on record as the warmest December in recorded history in Buffalo, with the average temperature at 47 degrees Fahrenheit, which is a whopping 12 degrees higher than usual. Buffalo also set the record for the longest time its ever gone on recorded history without snow.

However, don't expect it to last. Even if this winter is a nice break from the polar vortex, as soon as the Pacific Ocean returns to normal and El Niño resides, unusually cold and snowy winters will return. You can read more about that at the link I posted above, too.


Why A Warm Winter is a Bad Thing

While a warm winter may seem like a good thing, especially since it can provide relief to winter weather driving, massive amounts of shoveling and walking through tiring amounts of snow, warm weather actually has negative consequences.

For one, come crops grown in the northern parts of the United States need cold weather during the winter in order to properly grow during the summer. Initially, that doesn't make a whole lot of sense, right? However, just like bears and certain people, some plants need to hibernate over the winter. In order for these plants to hibernate, or go dormant (which is the technical term), the temperature needs to reach a certain degree below freezing for a certain period of time. If this doesn't happen, there won't be a good harvest come the end of summer.

Another unfortunate side effect of warm winters is insect species moving further north, such as the Bark Beetle, which is decimating forests in the northern parts of the United States. Usually, the cold winters kill this particular species of Beetle off, but with a mild winter, these insects survive, spread north, and chew through an impressive amount of pine trees. With global warming on the rise, we need all the trees we have.

California drought.
California drought. | Source

What Can Other Regions of the U.S. Expect From El Niño?

We can expect warmer weather not just in the northeast, but all over the western and northern parts of the United States. Central and western Canada will enjoy this warmer weather too.

The U.S. Gulf Coast and Florida can expect conditions to be wetter than usual, while Ohio and the Pacific Northwest can expect drier than usual conditions.

The southern parts of the U.S., from California to the Atlantic Coast, can expect conditions that are wetter and colder than usual. This is good news for California, which everyone knows is experiencing drought, and other drought stricken southern states, such as Arizona. However, even a strong El Niño cannot reverse the drought in California or other states. It may provide a boost to the reservoirs, and provide relief from the drought for a season, but that's about it. It's not a long term solution. California can also expect warmer ocean temperatures, which may result in some creatures visiting their beaches that normally don't, such as the Red crab, according to Marine Science.

What About the Effects on the Rest of the World?

Each El Niño varies, but it generally means less hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean, but more in the Pacific Ocean.

In Australia, because of shifting trade winds bringing warm, wet air to the eastern border, East Australia tends to experience wet, tropical weather, while West Australia, which is usually wet, may experience a severe drought. These shifting conditions also have the potential to damage the Great Barrier Reef, which is already under stress because of global warming.

The western coast of South America, such as Peru and Chile, can expect to be hit hard by El Niño, as usual. The weather phenomenon tends to bring higher than usual rainfall and more severe storms to the west coast, resulting in flooding. The increase in ocean temperature along the coast also often results in many of the native fish species fleeing the area in search of cooler water. Many people in places like Peru and Ecuador rely on fishing, not only as a source of food, but as a job. The loss of fish, therefore, results in famine, and it is a huge blow to these countries' economies.

In East Africa, in places like Sudan and Ethiopia, El Niño is already causing severe drought, resulting in widespread famine.

Fishing in Pimentel, Perú.
Fishing in Pimentel, Perú. | Source

Are Global Warming and El Niño Connected?

Scientists say it is hard to tell if El Niño and global warming are inter-related, which again, is just scientist speak for 'they have no clue if the two are connected.'

However, there is evidence to suggest that in the last 50 years, where warming has been the greatest, there has been an increase in the frequency of El Niño events, and two extreme El Niño events (both the 1982-83 event and the 1990-1995 event). This evidence, plus climate model projections, suggest that global warming may cause an increase in both the severity and frequency of El Niño events in the future.

For more information on global warming and climate change, check out this article here: What is Global Warming?

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