El Nino surges into record territory

The massive 2015-16 El Nino event is making a strong case to be called the El Nino event of record.

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By one important metric this winter's El Nino event has now surpassed the previous record event of 1997-98.

The Oceanic Nino Index (ONI) is the standard measure of the strength of El Nino/La Nina events. The past 3 months the ONI average was +2.31 C. That bests the previous record of +2.26 C set during the 1997-98 El Nino event.

Here's a look at the latest  (ONI) plot from NOAA's Climate Prediction Center. The peak at the far right of the graph represents the 2015-16 El Nino event.

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California Meteorologist Jan Null keeps close tabs on all things El Nino. He elaborates on the likely record magnitude of this winter's impressive El Nino event in New Scientist.

“We have pretty much had it nailed since late summer, early fall that this was going to be a very strong El Niño,” says Jan Null, a meteorologist at Golden Gate Weather Services in Saratoga, California.

But just how strong? At the end of last year, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) revealed that water temperature in the central Pacific had reached 3.1 °C above average. That shattered the previous all-time high from 1997, when the water at the same time of year measured 2.8 °C above average.

Null’s analysis of NOAA’s fresh data bolsters this view. He finds that the past three months score a very strong 2.31 on the oceanic Niño index, one of the primary measures of anomalies in sea surface temperatures. That’s up from 2.26 for the last strongest El Niño, in 1997.

Every El Nino is different

The comparison to 1997-98 is a good one. But ever El Nino is different. Take a look at the subtle but significant differences in placement of the warmest ocean temps int he Pacific in this event vs. 1997-98.

Why the differences? What subtle jet stream shifts do these thermal oceanic differences create? The truth? We don't yet fully understand everything that evolving ENSO science has to tell us. We're into Butterfly Effect territory here. That flap of a butterfly's wings in China? A warm patch of Pacific Ocean water int he Gulf of Alaska? Weather chaos theory at it's finest.

California: Some surprises

This El Nino has delivered on the promise of a series of storm for northern California. Not so much in So Cal. In fact, it's felt more like summer in much of California lately.

Overall snowpack in California's mountains is running slightly above average this winter. That's disappointing at this point. Many observers had hoped snowpack in the Sierras would be at least 150% of average by this time in a favorable El Nino winter.

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California Department of Water resources

I can tell you from working 9 years in the southwest including first hand coverage of the 1997-98 El Nino event that some of the wettest weather during El Nino winters can come in late February and March. It's too soon to write off El Nino's   rain/snow potential for California just yet.

Here's a great analysis of this El Nino winter from the San Diego NWS.

Minnesota: El Nino winter on track

True to form, Minnesota's El Nino winter is holding serve.

So far this winter is laying out pretty much according to projections last fall. Predictions of the strongest El Nino event on record have come to pass. Projections of a warmer than average winter in Minnesota have been accurate.

Here's a look at actual temperatures so far this winter season with more than two-thirds of winter in the bank, as we enter the home stretch.

  • +10.5 degrees - December average temps at MSP Airport

  • +2 degrees - January temps at MSP

  • +6.3 degrees February temps at MSP (through February 7th)

So far meteorological winter is running about +6.3 degrees vs. average in the Twin Cities overall.

For comparison here's what I projected in my winter forecast post on November 4th.

My temperature prediction for the Twin Cities and Minnesota: Temps for meteorological winter (Dec-Feb) 2015-16 will land somewhere between 4 and 8 degrees warmer than average. This could turn out to be one of the mildest winters on record in parts of Minnesota. 

FYI while I'm happy this winter's outlook worked out well, I'm not overly impressed with my forecast here. Forecasting a warmer than average winter was pretty much the default El Nino position this winter. That says a lot about how far the science of seasonal weather forecasting has come in the past 30 years.

Our unseasonably warm weather has forced cancellations and changes for many events this winter. Thin ice is the rule across the Midwest this winter.


Here's where we stand with snowfall so far.

  • 28.2" season snowfall to date at MSP Airport (-7.2" vs. average)

  • 46.0" season snowfall to date in Duluth (-10.2" vs. average)

  • 50.5" approximate snowfall season to date at Sawbill Outfitters in Sawbill lake in BWACW

Projections favoring below average snowfall have worked out well so far this winter across Minnesota. Again, for comparison purposes here's what I posted for snowfall predictions on November 4th based on the developing record El Nino event.

My snowfall prediction for the Twin Cities and Minnesota: Snowfall for the Twin Cities will land somewhere between 35 and 45 inches this winter. Northern Minnesota may see some snow totals approaching 70+ inches.

It remains to be seen where we'll end up with final snowfall totals, but so far things are running according to projections last fall.

Mild end to meteorological winter?

After this week's chill it appears we're ready to return to form with more mild Pacific breezes next week. The third week of February looks to be much warmer than average.

I see several more days in the 30s next week with another shot at 40 degrees. More February rain may creep into the forecast by next Friday February 19th. NOAA's GFS model is painting a wet, and warm system for this time of year by late next week. The GFS suggests the "540" rain-snow line is north of the Canadian border by next Friday. Symptom of the strongest El Nino winter on record.

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Hints of an early spring?

What about March you ask? There are growing signs this could be an early spring in Minnesota and across much of the northern U.S. this year. Take a look ta NOAA's Climate Forecast System (VCFSv2) output for March. It continues the trend of unseasonably warm air across most of Canada and the U.S. next month.

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The CFS suggest March temperatures of +7 degrees Fahrenheit over Minnesota in March.

If spring arrives on early or even on time, this may be one of the warmest and shortest winters on record in Minnesota and the Upper Midwest.

Stay tuned.

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