Even people who avoid the news probably have heard that an El Niño is coming—or building, or approaching, or whatever verb meteorologists like to use while describing these periodic weather events that are brought about by warmer-than-average ocean temperatures.
Not only that, but most experts are predicting that the El Niño that’s developing in the Pacific and that could impact various parts of the United States in the coming weeks and months (if it isn’t doing so already) could be a big one.
Or, as Cliff Mass, the well-known University of Washington Atmospheric Sciences professor, puts it: this El Niño has the potential to be “one of the strongest El Niños of the past 50 years, certainly the strongest in the past decade.”
The question is: how likely is that forecast to come true--and if it does, what could it mean for the region you call home, not to mention your humble abode and the insurance coverage you pay for to protect it?
Why You Should Care About El Niño
Before we answer those questions, though, let’s talk about why you should even care about El Niño. The short and sweet explanation is that the warm ocean waters mentioned earlier—along with the high air surface pressure that often accompanies them--shift the jet streams that crisscross North America when an El Niño is in effect.
As a result, weather patterns from one coast to the other (although Western states usually take the brunt of El Niño’s barrage) tend to shift as well—sometimes wildly, if the El Niño in question is strong.
A few typical examples: during El Niño years, the Pacific Northwest is drier than usual, California and most of the Southwestern states are wetter than usual, the Midwest is warmer than usual, and the states that line the Gulf Coast see fewer hurricanes than usual.
Also, these climatological fluctuations usually are most noticeable beginning in the fall and continuing into winter and sometimes even the following spring.
How This El Niño Could Affect Your Weather—and Home
That’s just the “high level” view of how El Niños often affect weather in the United States, though. Here’s a more detailed look at this particular one could impact specific regions in the coming months.
Although the Pacific Northwest is known for being rainy, especially during the winter months, that kind of weather may be the opposite of what its residents experience if this El Niño event is anywhere near as serious as meteorologists predict it will be.
OK, so it’s doubtful that this region will be bone dry as 2015 comes to a close, but it likely will be drier than usual. It’ll also be warmer than usual, according to Mass.
Specifically, Mass said on his popular weather blog that the Pacific region can expect the following in the next few months if this El Niño whips into shape:
- Warmer than normal temperatures
- Modestly below normal precipitation
- Less storminess, with reduced probabilities of major windstorms and floods
- Below-normal snowpack in the mountains
- Less chance of lowland snow
“The bottom line is that El Niño, and particularly a strong El Niño, heavily weights the atmospheric dice for a less stormy, warmer, and a bit drier Pacific Northwest,” Mass explained in a blog post published earlier this year.
As for what all of this means in terms of potential weather impacts to your property or home (and, as a result, your homeowners insurance), the main possibility here is that the drier conditions will increase the risk for wildfires across this area of the country through next spring and summer.
Thankfully, most homeowners insurance policies “should cover all fires, including wildfires, unless the policyholder intentionally sets the fire,” according to the Washington State Office of the Insurance Commissioner’s website.
Still, you should review your existing coverage now to ensure that it’ll adequately protect you, your family, and your savings should you suffer any losses related to a wildfire or any other weather event caused by this El Niño.
Although it may seem strange to separate California from the surrounding states, especially since this article otherwise clumps them into regions, when it comes to this El Niño and how it’ll probably affect different parts of the U.S., it could be said that the “Golden State” stands alone.
That’s because Californians traditionally are hit with more than the usual amount of rainfall whenever an El Niño arrives on the scene.
“If the current trend continues and a strong El Niño ends up developing and stays in place … southern California will get a lot of rain,” says Michael Fagin, president of and lead forecaster for Redmond, Washington-based West Coast Weather LLC—or at least that’s what normally happens when strong El Niños develop.
Likewise, Michael Ventrice, a meteorologist for The Weather Company, which operates The Weather Channel and weather.com, predicts that “heavy rains [will] impact much of California, as El Niño events often set up local conditions that generate strong storms across the Southwest,” while Mass points out that there is a “potential for heavy precip and flooding over central and southern California” due to this phenomenon.
Considering the state desperately needs a bit—or a lot—of water at the moment, the “heavy precip” that Mass is calling for probably would be welcomed with open arms by its inhabitants—as long as it doesn’t produce the flooding he also can see resulting from this particular El Niño.
(Speaking of which, unlike fire damage, flood damage to a home isn’t covered by your standard homeowners insurance policy. Instead, you have to purchase a separate, stand-alone policy—usually through the National Flood Insurance Program—to protect against flooding.)
On a more positive note, this El Niño that everyone’s keeping such a watchful eye on also could drop an above average amount of snow on the Sierra Nevada mountain range that’s mostly contained within California’s borders.
“They’ve had four or five years of below-average snowfall,” Fagin says, “so Californians should be happy with that, although … it’s also possible the rain will migrate to northern California instead.”
Things look far less calamitous in the Midwest, thankfully, with Fagin, for one, forecasting that region’s winter weather to be “milder than normal” due to this El Niño.
Adds Ventrice: “as we get into the mature phase of winter, the atmosphere during strong El Niño states often evolves into one that consists of a strong Gulf of Alaska trough, which surges mild Pacific air across the U.S. This flow pattern cuts off arctic air to the north and often results in above average temperatures from the western U.S. all the way through the Great Lakes.”
It also could result in drier conditions throughout the Midwest, as is isn’t unusual for El Niño winters to produce less snow than is usually seen at that time of year.
Next spring, though, it’s possible Midwesterners will have to deal with more tornadoes than they’re used to seeing at that time of year. The reason: some of the strongest El Niños on record have coincided with some of the worst years for twisters in the U.S.
Granted, Klaus Wolter, a research scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, told wired.com last year that connection is more complicated than it may initially seem, as tornadoes are caused by many different factors.
Of course, that’s likely to be cold comfort to anyone who lives in the region and whose home is destroyed by a tornado. So, if you call the Midwest home, scanning your homeowners policy and making sure it’s up to snuff from a coverage perspective might be a good idea right about now.
Like California, the states in the Southeast that border the Gulf of Mexico often receive more rain than usual between October and March during El Niño years.
Specifically, according to the NOAA’s climate.gov site, 80 percent of the El Niño events that have developed in the last 100 years have produced wetter-than-average conditions from Texas to Florida during that six-month period.
“The big story in the short term will be how anomalously wet conditions will be across the Southeastern states, especially Florida,” Ventrice says. “When we see a summer El Niño type of pattern set up across the U.S., we often see an increased amount of precipitation over the Gulf States.”
The storm track typically associated with El Niño “basically goes from southern California right across the country,” Fagin adds, and that band “tends to see above-average rainfall—so southern California, perhaps even Arizona, Texas, and then the Gulf States.”
Slightly making up for that potential deluge should be the reduced likelihood of hurricanes slamming into that section of the country while this El Niño sticks around--assuming it shows up in the first place.
During an average El Niño year, Ventrice explains, “the deep tropics often struggle as the atmospheric response to El Niño sets up large circulation cells that result in very strong trades across the Caribbean and tropical Atlantic”—a situation that also “makes conditions too hostile for strong hurricanes to spin up.”
This El Niño Isn’t a Sure Thing
Despite the fact that Ventrice, Mass, and others are predicting that this El Niño will become a pretty powerful one—if not the strongest on record--when all is said and done, Fagin warns that “everyone was predicting [a strong El Niño] last year, too, and it fizzled.”
In other words, none of the weather disasters—or benefits, such as the warmer and drier conditions that could affect the Midwest this winter— discussed so far are “set in stone,” Fagin adds. “We’ve definitely had El Niños that resulted in fairly normal or average conditions.”
On the flip side, though, it’s more than possible this particular El Niño will be every bit as massive as most meteorologists and related experts are making it out to be. Should that turn out to be the case, it may affect the weather that occurs in your region well into 2016.
Mass certainly seems to think that’s a possibility, having recently proclaimed on his blog that “strong El Niños produce a net global warming, so expect the upcoming year to break many global heat records.”