El Niño ‘is in full effect’ this winter season


Taylor Nicole Richards – News Writer

Last winter and the winter before, Southern had spring semester closures so frequently that there was rarely a full week of class until winter was finally over. This is not the case this season, as El Niño is in full effect, according to Elyse Zavar, assistant professor of geography.

El Niño is a weather pattern resulting from variations in ocean temperatures in the equatorial Pacific, according to the National Ocean Service’s website. El Niño is a warming of the central to eastern tropical Pacific Ocean and occurs every three to seven years, lasting for a few months to a couple years. In contrast, La Niña is cooling of waters across the same region, but lasts for longer periods of time, usually two years or longer, according to the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. These oceanic and atmospheric shifts in the Pacific invariably affect North American temperatures.

“In Western portion of the Pacific Ocean, we expect to have a lot of rain and warmer ocean waters and in the eastern portion, closer to the north American coastline, you would expect to see colder water and dryer conditions,” said Zavar. “What happens during El Niño is the exact opposite: we get the warmer water closer to the equatorial region of South America and that drives a warm air current up through North America, which is what we’re experiencing.”

El Niño also affects the atmosphere, which is the reason the Connecticut winter has been so warm. The jet stream moving east from the Pacific brings wet weather to Southwestern America, warmer weather to the Eastern U.S., and increased snowfall in the Pacific Northwest and western Great Lakes, according to the National Weather Service. But just because El Niño raises the season’s cumulative temperatures doesn’t mean the Northeast won’t get any snow.

“When El Niño wins out, we get a more mild winter over here,” said Zavar. “But there’s always action or fighting in our atmosphere where even when we get a mild winter, sometimes we can get eight inches of snow because other circulation patterns can dominate from day to day or week to week.”

Weather patterns like El Niño or La Niña impact the environment in ways other than oceanic and atmospheric temperature shifts. El Niño brings drought to Indonesia and flooding to places like Southern California, Oklahoma, and Texas, as it has been this year, according to Zavar. There have been a number of floods and mudflows across the US West Coast, which has been positively affecting California’s serious drought, according to Al-Jazeera.

Zavar said that the frequency of El Niño events is related to global climate change. Going back the last few decades, El Niños are occurring every three to five years whereas previously, they were occurring about every seven years.

“We kind of think about it terms of CT—obviously a more mild winter. But the cumulative temperature is going to be warmer,” said Zavar. “This is important when we think about everything from the timing of when vegetation blooms and life cycles for different organisms. A lot species are highly involved with climate and temperature so any change in that is going to potentially alter reproduction changes, food changes, and migration changes.”

Since El Niños are occurring more frequently, this has a bigger impact overall on global climate change and how it affects the environment.

Photo Credit: Staff Photo

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