Energy & Environment

El Nino Could Still Bring A Wet Winter To Texas

What is the likelihood of a wetter fall?


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An image of the TOA system
An image of the TOA system from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.


Earlier this year Bob Rose, liked what he was seeing in the forecast. He’s a meteorologist for the Lower Colorado River Authority.  I talked to him at an event there in April.

“I’m optimistic that we will get into a pattern of above normal rainfall this fall continuing into next winter and possibly into next spring as well.”

But when I called Rose at his office this week …

“Interesting, the El Nino, while it looked like it was really starting to ramp up, and would really start to develop in September. It actually took a pause in July.” 

El Nino. We often talk about it like it’s one thing. But it’s a really series of things — a pattern that can result in wet weather in North America. What got us so excited in the spring was the first piece in that pattern. The temperature of the tropical Pacific Ocean started to warm.

We knew because of a network of bouys out there.

“They’re actually anchored buoys out in the deep in the ocean which is a technological feat.”

That’s John Neilson Gammon. He’s the State Climatologist of Texas.

“They were put in because, well back in the 80s we discovered, “Gee, this El Nino thing is important. We better figure out what’s going on!”

So this spring the buoys were picking up a nice big bulge of warm water heading east.

“And so that made it to the surface to the Eastern Pacific and warmed up the temperatures. Hmmm … maybe about as much as a degree or a degree and a half.” 

That sets the stage for the next step. When the warmer surface water engages with the atmosphere.

“The thunderstorm storm activity has to respond to that and move from where it normally is in the Western Pacific back to the east.”

Buschele: “I’m trying to think about it like a good analogy and for some reason it made me think of like a pilot light, trying to catch a fire.

He said, no. It’s really more like a feedback loop.

“I mean the normal thing that people think about when they think about positive feedback is when you have so a microphone that’s close to a speaker.” 

When the sound is generated the microphone picks it up. Then the sound comes out through the speaker. It gets picked up by the microphone again. Then back to the speaker … (listen to the audio for an example of positive feedback loop).

“So that’s sort of what’s going on here with the ocean. You get the signal of warm water that comes up from the surface. And if the atmosphere picks up that signal and responds to it. Then that re-inforces that signal in the ocean then everything gets stronger and stronger.” 

Except this year. That didn’t happen. 

“I was a little bit … disappointed. I don’t know if that’s the right word. I was intrigued when this August those water temperatures started to cool off.”

That’s Meteorologist Bob Rose again. There’s a precedent for this. Much the same thing happened in 2012.

“What we saw in that year was the water temperatures did warm up. But there was nothing there to help sustain that warm water into the fall period. And the trade winds reversed and we started seeing cooler waters come in and everything just sort of collapsed.”

That’s two times in three years where the pattern has fallen apart.  So I asked John Neilsen Gammon the question that might be on your mind. Could climate change be messing with El Nino?

“Oh well, the answer is absolutely, yes! It could be influenced. Of course the next part of the answer is going to be really disappointing. We don’t know which direction climate change is going to influence things.”

Climate change could make El Ninos more likely or less likely. Right now the models just aren’t conclusive.

“So maybe in about five years I’ll be able to give you an answer as to what change might happen, but right now all I can say is, ‘Yeah sure, but … who knows what?”

And in the case of this year, don’t count El Nino out just yet. The waters in the pacific have started warming again. There’s still a 66 percent chance of a weak or moderate El Nino forming by the end of the year.

Not as strong as many were hoping but according to Bob Rose.

“For Texas, it doesn’t really matter as much the strength of the EL Nino, so the fact that we’re likely not to see a strong El Nino is not that disappointing to us.”

He’s still predicting above normal rainfall starting in the fall and through the winter.

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