‘Godzilla’ El Nino could lead to more flooding, severe weather this winter

Sea surface temperature in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. El Niño is characterized by unusually warm temperatures in the equatorial Pacific. (Courtesy: NOAA)
Sea surface temperature in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. El Niño is characterized by unusually warm temperatures in the equatorial Pacific. (Courtesy: NOAA)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The stage is set for what could be a wild winter for Central Texas. Record warm water in parts of the equatorial Pacific Ocean indicate a strong El Niño pattern is in place, and it is already influencing Texas weather.

The interaction of the warming Pacific and changes in the jet stream may have played a role in the record-breaking rainfall and catastrophic flooding in May, and almost certainly influenced the historic rain and deadly flooding in late October.

Two storm systems pounded Texas during the last week of October. The first, energized by the remnants of Hurricane Patricia, the most intense storm ever recorded in the western hemisphere—created 8 inches of rain in parts of the Austin metro area, costing millions of dollars in lost revenue during Austin’s Formula 1 race weekend. An average of 4 inches of rain fell over Texas during the storm–a statewide record.

One week later, even more stunning records were established, as nearly 15 inches of rain fell in six hours on Oct. 30–on some area creeks a rainfall so intense it is considered a 1-in-2,300 year rain event. Three people died in the flash flood on Dry Creek near Del Valle, and hundreds of homes were damaged or destroyed.

If storms of this magnitude are already occurring, what might the weeks and months ahead hold? Last week, the warmest water temperatures ever recorded in the El Niño region signaled what is the most powerful El Niño since the record breaking 1997-98 event, and it could become the strongest on record. The pattern is still gaining strength, and likely will not peak until sometime this winter.

During an El Niño episode, areas in green or yellow are likely to become wetter or dryer than normal during the indicated months. (Courtesy: International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.)
During an El Niño episode, areas in green or yellow are likely to become wetter or dryer than normal during the indicated months. (Courtesy: International Research Institute for Climate and Society.)

Mike Halpert, the Deputy Director of NOAA’s climate prediction center told KXAN “right now it looks to be one that will be somewhere in the top three–whether it becomes the strongest, or second or third is still to be determined.”

Historically, strong El Niños have wrought havoc around the world, and in many U.S. states. In Texas, the greatest influence of the pattern is noted from late autumn through early spring, when the jet stream shifts south, transporting a repeating series of storm systems across the southern U.S.

Strong El Niño events like the current one tend to result in more significant impacts in Central Texas weather. During a strong El Niño period in 1991, a flood on Lake Travis caused the lake to rise to its highest level on record. Historic Hill Country floods again in 1997 flooded Lake Travis almost as badly.

But, the El Niño’s influence can be beneficial. California is expecting significant relief from a historic drought. A refill of our recently drought-stricken lakes is another example.

Lake Travis has not been full for five years; Lake Buchanan, seven years. Flood gates have not been used on either lake for eight years. But, should this El Niño generate flood-producing storms, there are concerns that many who live along the Colorado River, especially on or below water storage basins Lake Buchanan and Lake Travis, may not be prepared for the next flood. LCRA Executive Vice President of Water John Hoffman reminds people to remain vigilant. “People need to respect the force of this water. They need to respect the dynamic nature of these events and be very tuned in to what’s happening their local area,” says Hoffman. “It’s not just keeping up with the news or the National Weather Service, it’s also paying attention to what’s happening outside their door.”

And, it is not just those who live near lakes, rivers, or streams who need to be prepared. El Niño winters in past years have also included rare severe storms and tornado touchdowns in Central Texas. It is also not unusual to have one or more bouts of paralyzing ice storms and/or accumulating snow in the area.

The other consistent impact of the El Niño effect for Texas is colder-than-normal winter weather. But, it is not usually related to cold air masses originating from the Arctic. Instead, it is more often a product of more cloudy, rainy days, which in winter, are always colder than average.

Despite all the weather impacts anticipated this winter, it is important to acknowledge that no two El Niños influence the weather in the same way. There is a slight chance that the coming Central Texas winter includes nothing out of the ordinary. “The climate system is really complex,” says Halpert. “And other things can happen, things we can’t even imagine at this point that could mean even drier and warmer than average weather this winter. That is certainly a possible–we never rule that out as a possible outcome.”

The term El Niño (Spanish for “the boy” or “the Christ Child”) was originally used in the 1600s by fishermen along the coasts of Ecuador and Peru to refer to a warm ocean current that typically appears around Christmas and lasts for several months. Fish are less abundant during these warm intervals, so fishermen often take a break to repair their equipment and spend time with their families. In some years, however, the water is especially warm and the break in the fishing season persists into May or even June. Over the years, the term “El Niño” has come to be reserved for these exceptionally strong warm intervals that not only disrupt the normal lives of the fishermen, but also bring heavy rains. The cycles occur every 2-7 years.


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