AUSTIN (KXAN) — Meteorological winter begins in approximately two weeks and the new weather outlook shows the La Niña weather pattern will have a major impact on what the months of December, January and February will look like.
La Niña is a phenomenon in which the Pacific Ocean temperatures in the equatorial region are cooler than normal–in fact, they already are. La Niña winters usually result in a northward shift of the cold and stormy jet stream patterns. More often than not, that results in a drier and warmer than normal winter weather in Texas.
Winters in Central Texas
Whether it’s record-breaking heat, traffic-halting ice or dangerous severe weather, Central Texas has seen it all during the winter season.
The threat of severe weather isn’t just in the spring, but it happens during wintertime as well. It was just last February when a total of four tornadoes touched down in our metro counties.
While the winter of 2016-2017 went down in the record books as the warmest winter ever at Camp Mabry and ABIA, the last several La Niña winters serve as a good reminder that even a mild winter can still bring extreme weather.
Last winter’s weak La Niña brought us some of the coldest mornings in nearly six years in early January. The frigid cold snap even brought a few icy patches on some area bridges and overpasses. “We’re here to do the job, to keep those roads open,” says Chris Bishop, a spokesperson with the Texas Department of Transportation.
Some will even recall the winter of ’84/’85, when over 8 inches of snow fell in Austin–making it the city’s snowiest winter on record. These are all things that happened during a winter pattern like the one we are predicting this year.
So just because predictions show a warmer and drier than normal winter season, it doesn’t mean people should let their guard down.
Bishop says his agency will be monitoring road conditions closely, no matter how mild this winter may be. “We treat every winter the same way,” Bishop tells KXAN “as if it could be the worst icing conditions possible.”
“We’ve already laid in and ordered stocks of deicer,” says Bishop. “We have some sand available, the trucks are all inspected, all the equipment is working, and everybody is ready for when the weather does happen to turn sour to where we can be called out and hit the road running.”
How a Warm Winter Impacts Your Health
In Central Texas, you can always count on the cedar pollen to come rolling in around December. All that sniffling and sneezing can be made worse depending on the conditions.
“Trees want warm and wet conditions to make pollen,” says Dr. Douglas Barstow with Allergy & Asthma Associates. “So if you combine the two, the pollen counts not only go higher, but when you throw the wet in, then the pollen itself actually gets stronger.”
Here’s the rub: wetter doesn’t necessarily mean rain. If we are dry but humid like last year, that will encourage more powerful pollens. Cedar reached its second highest level ever last winter. Counts peaked on Dec. 29, 2016 at almost 22,000; 32,000 is the highest total ever recorded in Central Texas, in the mid-1990s.
During bad years, cedar flies far away from our area. Allergists say last year our cedar was detected as far away as Tulsa, Okla.
“Having such a bad cedar season, then there might be more people becoming allergic to cedar, because they’ll have had higher exposure to it,” Dr. Barstow says.
Jay Otto, who rides his bicycle on the Hike and Bike Trail, says while he may sniffle more this winter, it won’t keep him off the trail. And he welcomes more foot traffic thanks to the nicer days.
“The more the merrier! It’s Austin. Keep it weird!” says Otto.
Winter extremes can also include extreme drought. Just seven years ago, the first of back-to-back La Niña years contributed to the worst drought in our area’s history. The 2010/2011 La Niña event was classified as “strong,” and the 2011/2012 event “moderate.”
In September 2010, just before that drought-inducing pattern began, Tropical Storm Hermine dumped 16 inches of rain in the Austin metro area–taking two lives. But, immediately after, the La Niña pattern kicked off our driest 12 months in recorded history, including the hottest summer ever recorded in 2011.
That August featured an average high in Austin of 105 degrees, with a total of 90 100-degree days for the year.
This fall has so far featured abnormally dry weather. Now that we are entering another La Niña pattern, many are wondering if we may be entering another drought.
Lake Travis is still holding onto higher water levels than average for this time of year, but the “Sometimes Islands” near Mansfield Dam are showing again. These islands that jut out from Mansfield Dam Park serve as a sobering reminder that we are just one dry period away from changing the recreational landscape, and endangering the drinking water supply for more than one million Central Texans.
Roland Adams has worked on Lake Travis for 31 years. He manages the Crosswater Yacht Club and Hurst Harbor Marina, two of nearly 30 marinas on the lake. A ride through the Yacht Club shows slips packed with boats, fresh off the water.
“I think it’s the nicest lake in Texas, personally,” Adams says.
But not long ago, things were different.
“It just felt like, because of the length of the drought, the first year was like being knocked down in a fight, and every year after that was like being kicked in the ribs,” says Adams.
Lake Travis was just shy of full following Tropical Storm Hermine in late 2010 but fell almost 50 feet in just over a year. The lake got even lower in 2013 and didn’t rebound until the Memorial Day floods two years later. Lake levels have been healthy since 2015.
“People underestimate how long it’s going to take to totally recover,” Adams says. “We still haven’t recovered from the drought.”
As we head into the winter months with a nearly full lake, Adams has a reminder for whenever the next drought may come.
“Lake Travis, even at its lowest level, was still a gem. A real gem. Probably more so than it is now, just because there was no one else out here using it.”
While we may be entering a dry period during the coming winter, it is important to note that after the lake fell so sharply in 2011, the Lower Colorado River Authority modified their policy on how much water they release to downstream rice farmers. This means that even if the weather were equally dry in the future, it is unlikely that the lake level would fall as much.
And while La Niña patterns in the past have at times led to drought years, this winter’s developing pattern does not guarantee a looming drought, as there have been plenty of exceptions. But after a few wet years, our next drought is undoubtedly drawing closer.