SEATTLE -- I'm not sure "better late than never" is the right term for this, but amid among the coldest and snowiest February's on record in Seattle, El Niño has officially arrived.
Yeah, I'm thinking the same thing: "Really?"
El Niño winters are typically marked by being warmer and drier than normal in the Pacific Northwest, especially in the January-March time frame. January actually followed the script -- it was the 5th or 6th warmest on record depending on your temperature metric of choice and only had about half the normal rainfall.
But then we flipped the calendar to February and Mother Nature flipped on the air conditioner. On overdrive.
So this is not your father's El Niño, or even your older brother's -- our last El Niño in 2014-15 was a record-breaking one that contributed to the warmest winter and year on record. In fact, while NOAA says technically speaking, the ocean waters in the Central Pacific have finally eked over the warming threshold (+0.5 degrees C above normal for three consecutive months) it has just barely made it, and it is apparently too weak to have much effect on the winter now.
"While sea surface temperatures are above average, current observations and climate models indicate that this El Niño will be weak," said Mike Halpert, deputy director, NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, and ENSO forecaster. "Meaning we do not expect significant global impacts through the remainder of winter and into the spring."
That would be good, because El Niño's usually mean a wimpy mountain snowpack. But Snoqualmie Pass is sitting at a healthy 100" base amid 242 inches of seasonal snow (81.5 inches in the past 6 days!) and mountain snowpacks are now running in the 75-90 percent normal range. It does seem like it has trending more like a "neutral" winter, which traditionally features wild ranges of weather and stronger storms. The frequent windstorms of December, the rather sunny January and our snowy February would play to that script quite well.
But the El Niño, such as it is, is expected to last through the spring -- maybe. Forecasters give it a 55 percent chance. After that, we look to return to neutral status but will have to get beyond spring to get a good idea of what next autumn and winter behold. The ocean waters become unpredictable in spring and thus forecasters usually wait out this "spring barrier" and get into the summer before getting a good idea going forward. Usually speaking, a neutral year will follow an El Niño pattern, so maybe it's here we go again for the winter of 2019-20?
While the mild/dry typical calling card for the Northwest certainly has not been the case this year, California is experiencing a typical El Niño winter with several rain storms.