2016 has already been quite a crazy year, and the weird weather we’ve been experiencing has only added to this heap of absurdity. Ask a fellow student what they think about it, and they might respond in a hesitant manner, tossing in words like “El Niño” and “La Niña” to support their flimsy interpretation of the weather. Whereas they would not be completely wrong, atmospheric scientists have acknowledged that only a certain few weather effects can be attributed to El Niño, and that the cause of others remains undetermined.
According to the Scientific American, El Niño is part of a naturally occurring, irregular cycle that occurs every two to seven years in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, and it is characterized by a large area of warmer-than average ocean surface temperatures in the central and eastern Pacific. El Niño’s opposing counterpart is La Niña, which is when surface waters are cooler than normal.
This weather phase causes change by adding a lot of extra energy to the atmosphere, which leads to a higher than normal amount of rising air in a region. The current 2015-2016 El Niño has been deemed to be one of the three strongest ever recorded; the other two occurred in 1982-83 and 1997-98.
El Niño primarily affects North America, but it also influences the weather in Indonesia and Africa. The Pacific Northwest is affected by the weather phase too, as the Climate Prediction Center has released a weather outlook predicting increased chances of above normal temperatures for the entire state of Washington, with an increased chance of below normal precipitation.
However, the unusually warm weather that the U.S. Northeast experienced towards the end of last year cannot be explicitly linked to El Niño, as the polar vortex, a persistent and large scale cyclone, kept cold air bottled up high in the Arctic region. Additionally, the polar jet stream, which runs across southern Canada and the northern U.S., experienced a big bend. The coalescence of these two weather factors is what caused the high temperatures in December.
On the other hand, the deep snow that blanketed the northeastern region in January was attributed to Winter Storm Jonas, which came with stiff northeasterly winds and drove Atlantic Ocean water towards shore, causing record storm tides.
El Niño and its effects are predicted to subside by April, so stay cool, Bellevue.