At its heart, the El Niño is a pool of warm ocean water along the Pacific equator. It shows up every few years in response to weakened trade winds, and it has profound impacts on weather patterns. Typically, it means that drier regions receive rain, and wetter regions dry up.
But weather is chaos, and predicting even what’s going to happen tomorrow is an odds game. So to say for sure that El Niño is going to cause floods in drought-stricken California, or lead to a certain number of inches of snow at a particular ski resort, is a gamble.
Listen to how NOAA hedges its temperature and precipitation outlooks for the winter season:
El Niño can make certain weather conditions more likely, but it’s far from a guarantee. Just check out these NOAA precipitation maps from El Niño years. The winter of 1965-66 saw a strong El Niño event and drier than normal conditions across California. Same thing in 1987-88 and other years.
What gives? As they say, the (weather) gods must be crazy.
In a world of climate change, predicting these things has gotten even more challenging. This year, there are even weirder things happening in the ocean that could throw the whole El Niño system for a loop.
There’s the persistent warm blob of ocean hanging out near Alaska, and another blob (christened “Son of Blob” by a Discover Magazine blogger) hanging out between Hawaii and Mexico.
How these decidedly anomalous patterns are going to affect the weather is really, really hard to say.
What’s a ski-bum to make of all of this? Will your favorite slopes get a big dump or get left behind? Check your local forecasts, and you’ll get a sense of what could happen. Unless you’re the gambling type, though, it’s probably best to wait for the snowstorm to actually hit, then head for the sweetest pow’.