[caption id="attachment_19597" align="alignright" width="300"]
Satellite images comparing Nov. 18, 2015, and Nov. 19, 1997 - via KTLA[/caption]
This year’s El Niñ
o event looks like it could be one of the largest ever, a Southern California National Weather Service office said
on Nov. 25.
The office suggested it could be comparable to the largest El Niñ
o we know about, the 1997-1998 event.
That El Niñ
o winter is important for two reasons: its size, and that for the first time, scientists actually predicted its impacts. Thanks to those predictions, governments, utilities and private organizations were able to prepare for its possible effects.
“Even in poverty-ridden Peru constructing storm drains and stockpiling emergency supplies saved hundreds of lives during 1997 and ’98,” said a National Geographic story about that El Niñ
o. “Many affected areas could prepare for floods and fires, population migration, and the spread of disease.”
Contrary to a Saturday Night Live sketch
starring Chris Farley, an El Niñ
o is not a storm or even a series of storms. It’s part of a natural cycle
that occurs every few years.
Trade winds usually pile up warm surface water on the western side of the Pacific, off the coast of Indonesia. During an El Niñ
o year, trade winds fail and that warm water sloshes back to the west coast of South America. The warmer water and atmosphere during an El Niñ
o speeds airflow toward the poles, which, in the northern hemisphere, causes the jet stream to move south.
The jet stream is a constant, high-altitude wind moving at hurricane speed that circles the globe. Storms follow its track. The last few years, for example, a “blob” of warm water over the Gulf of Alaska
has pushed the jet stream northward into western Canada and south into the eastern U.S. The result: drought in the west and the “Polar Vortex” and 2014’s record-breaking snowfall in the east.
A strong El Niñ
o like the 1997-98 one usually pushes the jet stream south. In 1997, this meant record-breaking rainfall in California and the southeastern U.S. and an abnormally warm winter
across the north. A report from the National Climatic Data Center
showed the results to U.S. weather patterns.
In December 1997, Glasgow, Mt. had no sub-zero temperatures for the first time recorded and averaged 10.9 degrees above normal. At the same time, part of central and northeast Florida got hammered with record rainfall: Tampa saw 15.57 inches and Orlando 12.63. All of this weather followed the expected pattern of a large El Niñ
[caption id="attachment_19599" align="alignright" width="300"]
2015-2016 El Niño Winter Outlook - via NOAA[/caption]
January 1998 began with a widespread storm that brought flooding and tornadoes to the southeast and one of the worst ice storms recorded to New England. Fifty-six people were killed in the U.S. and Canada from January 5-9. An estimated 500 homes were flooded in North Carolina. Up to 3 inches of frozen rain fell in the Northeast and Canada. The ice destroyed nearly 3 million feet of power lines, leaving more than 3 million customers without power in Canada and 500,000 more in the U.S. The damages from this storm alone were more than $2 billion in Canada.
Precipitation records fell throughout the month in the southeast. Flat Top, W.V. saw 35 inches of snow in one day. New Orleans received 19.28 inches throughout the month.
In February, it was California’s and Florida’s turn. Four weeks of rain caused widespread flooding and mudslides in California. Santa Barbara shattered its rainfall record for any month of the year with almost 22 inches. Seventeen people were killed and 35 counties were declared federal disaster areas.
On February 22-23, 42 people were killed in Florida tornadoes that also left more than 3,500 homes damaged and 1,500 uninhabitable. Fifty-four of 67 Florida counties were declared disaster areas.
Later in the year, produce and orange juice prices rose because of crop damage in the two states.
However, not all El Niñ
o’s effects were negative. One paper by climatologist Stanley Changnon estimated that 189 people in the U.S. died from El Niñ
o-related weather and U.S. economic costs were $4.2-$4.5 billion. However, abnormally warm, dry weather throughout most of the country reduced heating costs and got people outdoors. This produced an economic benefit of almost $20 billion and an estimated 859 people were saved because above-normal temperatures reduced freezing deaths.
The paper also pointed out that, because scientists for the first time predicted El Niñ
o’s coming, states prepared. California spent about $7.5 million to help with local preparedness projects and public warnings. As a result, Changnon believes, the state suffered $1.1 billion in damage, compared with about $2 billion lost in 1982-83, an equivalent El Niñ
Or, as a United Nations study
of the 1997-98 El Niñ
o said, “The time the farmer should fix his leaky roof is when it is NOT raining. The time to prepare for El Niñ
o is when there is no El Niñ
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