A Strong El Niño is Predicted This Winter

Daily interactions between our oceans and atmosphere help shape the weather and climate we experience on Earth. However, naturally-occurring events such as El Niño can alter these interactions resulting in dramatic shifts in weather patterns across the globe. El Niño, also known as the El Niño Southern Oscillation, is characterized by periods of warmer tropical surface waters in the Pacific Ocean. El Niño episodes usually occur every three to seven years, but the last major El Niño period occurred during the 1997-1998 season.

El Niño’s impacts can also be felt across North America. Researchers at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Weather Service (NWS) are predicting that the weak El Niño event which arrived this summer will strengthen during the upcoming winter months and influence weather patterns across the United States. The latest update by the NWS Climate Prediction Center still calls for a strong El Niño. So what is in store for Florida and the Gulf coast? Residents along the Gulf coast and other parts of the southeastern U.S. can expect noticeable changes in rainfall and air temperatures this winter. El Niño’s impact on jet stream patterns typically lead to more frequent winter storms and frontal systems, cooler temperatures, and above average rainfall patterns for Florida. In fact, researchers predict winter temperatures to decrease compared to normal averages and precipitation to increase by 30 to 50 percent compared to normal winter precipitation averages.

What impacts will our coastal environment experience? As a result of increased precipitation, larger amounts of freshwater runoff will enter our local estuaries during Florida’s normal “dry” season. Inshore coastal areas influenced by this runoff will experience below average salinity levels, which may have undesirable impacts on local marine life. If we look back to the 1997-1998 El Niño event for reference, over 50” of rain was recorded in the Big Bend region from October through April, resulting in a 50-year flood of the Suwannee River. The clam farming industry, which was relatively new to Levy and Dixie Counties at that time, was impacted as crop losses were experienced at several lease areas.

It is important to note that El Niño is only one of many factors that influence our weather and climate in Florida. Predictions are based on forecasting models along with real-time monitoring of changes in oceanic and atmospheric conditions. Therefore, even during a strongly predicted El Niño event, “typical” El Niño-like conditions described above may not always be present. For example, there is currently a 5” rainfall deficit in the Big Bend region. Regardless, it is important for shellfish farmers and coastal citizens to learn about this phenomenon so they can anticipate the changes that may occur and affect their daily lives and businesses.

To learn more about El Niño and its current status, visit the NOAA El Niño Forecast website.

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