It’s official. The current El Niño is now tied with 1997-98 as the strongest on record. NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center released the numbers earlier this week to confirm what has been predicted for months. Waters in the Pacific are not just warm - they are historically warm.
The Oceanic Niño Index, an official tool used by NOAA to measure sea surface temperature anomalies in the Pacific, is now at 2.3. The only other time it has been this high since 1950 was in late 1997. The extra atmospheric energy and evaporation that occurs as a result of the warmer waters will continue to affect weather patterns nationwide through the winter. In Florida, those influences have only just begun. The highest correlation between our climate and the El Niño pattern typically occurs in the months of January and February, with impacts noticeable as late as May. Meteorologist Brian LaMarre from the National Weather Service in Tampa explains why.
"Usually there's a lag time between the warming of the Pacific Ocean and the time it takes the atmosphere and the weather patterns to start responding to the change."
And he says there's already sign of that change.
"The jet stream is starting to spread a little bit farther south in the Southern U.S. We're going to see more of a current coming in from California, across Texas and the Mississippi River Valley, and over to Florida."
This stronger flow of wind is what often leads to an enhanced risk of tornadoes in the state, particularly in Central Florida. As we noted earlier this fall, the two recent deadliest tornadoes outbreaks in our state occurred during El Niño winters 1998 and 2007.
Severe weather is not the only byproduct of El Niño in Florida. In a book published in 1999 by The Florida Consortium, research shows that El Niño winters in Florida are typically wetter than average, especially in central and southern sections of the state.
The good news is that by most measures, waters are beginning to cool across the Pacific. Monthly and weekly anomalies have decreased across all major sectors of the ocean over the last four weeks, and forecast data suggests there will be a continuation of this trend. NOAA projects El Niño conditions will persist through winter, but near-neutral conditions will return by late spring or early summer.
Scott Cordero, Meteorologist in Charge from the National Weather Service in Jacksonville, says the most important thing Floridians can do now is stay informed.
"These evolving threats are typically identified a few days in advance. We give more specific information of the most likely times and locations from those impacts of any individual storm one or two days in advance."
Scott also wanted to remind everyone to keep those cell phones charged and have a backup battery just in case. The Florida Public Radio Emergency Network has a new free mobile app that can send customized weather alerts to multiple locations, all while streaming severe weather information from this radio station. It's called Florida Storms and is available free of charge in the app store today.
Editors Note: UF Forecaster Dan Henry provided some research to this story.