This El Nino is turning out to be one for the record books.
On Thursday, forecasters for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have concluded it’s now tied with the 1997/98 episode as the strongest on record. That event sparked widespread storms and flooding that caused more than $4 billion in damage and killed 189 people nationwide.
“For those interested in numbers and how this event currently ranks in the historically record, the initial October-November-December Oceanic Nino Index tied the value recorded for October-November-December 1997 … making this event comparable to the 97-98 episode,” Mike Halpert, deputy director, of NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, told reporters.
After starting in March 2015, it is expected to peak later this month or next month and weaken by the spring. Already, El Nino has been linked to the strange weather seen during the holidays across North America, from record warming in the Northeast to the heavy snowfall out West.
“These real strong El Ninos are known to exert significant influence on our weather and climate particularly during winter,” Halpert said, referring to an strong event that is characterized by warmer ocean temperatures in the Pacific Ocean at the Equator of at least 2.7 degrees above normal.
“Some of what we’ve seen so far during December and January is quite consistent with that, including wetness in the Southeast and the mild conditions seen during December over the northern part of the country,” he said. “But other things aren’t, including the flooding on the Mississippi River or flooding in the Pacific Northwest.”
They worst impacts of El Nino, however, are still to come.
Wetter than average conditions through March are forecast across entire southern part of the United States from California to Florida and up the East Coast to southern New England, Halpert said. Above average temperatures are expected in Alaska, out West and across the North. Below average temperatures, meanwhile, are expected in the Southern Plains and in the Southeast.
In terms of specific weather events, Halpert cautioned that it was difficult to attribute any one to El Nino - such as the recent tornadoes in the Southeast - and that not everything can be linked to it. He noted, for example that Hurricane Alex forming the Atlantic probably had nothing to do with El Nino.
“Obviously an Atlantic system in January is – I don’t think it’s unprecedented – but it’s certainly very unusual,” Halpert said. “To my knowledge and understanding, there is really no El Nino signal there.”