You may have heard that climate scientists and forecasters are predicting that this winter will see a fairly significant El Niño event. We want to take a moment to think about what this might mean for the Pacific Northwest this winter.
What is El Niño
In a normal year, the trade winds blowing from east to west over the Pacific blow warm surface water away from the eastern Pacific, near the Americas, towards the western Pacific, near Indonesia and China. This aids upwelling of cold water in near the Americas, leading to a much lower average ocean temperature on our side of the Pacific. This is hugely beneficial for us, because colder water and more upwelling means more nutrients in our seas, helping spur the development of major fisheries. The temperature of the oceans also affects weather circulation patterns across the globe, which is part of the reason our winters tend to be so wet here in the Northwest.
During an El Niño event, the warmer waters of South America shift global weather patterns, leading to wetter winters in the southern part of the United States, and drier, warmer winters up here in the Northwest. While at first you might think “drier, warmer winter? Sign me up!”, El Niño events can have significant negative consequences for Northwest recreation, agriculture, and water supplies. A warmer and drier winter means less snowpack accumulated over the season. This means fewer powder days for our skiing friends and, consequently, lower profits for ski resorts. It also means we will have a problem in the spring when snowmelt feeds water reservoirs and irrigation systems. Farmers who rely on spring snowmelt for irrigation will find water prices increasing as supply becomes scarce, while government water district managers will have trouble keeping their reservoirs full. This may lead to higher prices for agricultural commodities such as palm oil, sugar, cocoa and wheat (according to Bloomberg).
For more information on El Niño, see NOAA’s El Niño portal.
Are you a skier? A farmer? Let us know what El Niño means to you!