El Niño May be Changing the Weather This Winter in California and Elsewhere

First Posted: Dec 16, 2015 07:15 AM EST

Why is it so warm this winter? It could have something to do with El Niño. Scientists have announced that the strongest El Niño event since 1997-98 is currently unfolding in the eastern equatorial Pacific and could be bringing rainy conditions to California and drought to tropical areas.

Due to this El Niño, tropospheric ozone, a pollutant and greenhouse gas, is decreasing over mid-latitude locations, such as the United States. The risk of fires across the tropics is also showing signs of decreasing.

An El Niño is a recurring natural phenomenon. It occurs when sea surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific heat up. This increased ocean surface temperature influences air and moisture movement around the globe, impacting multiple interconnected Earth systems.

One big question about the current El Niño is if it will bring significant rain to the drought-plagued California. Currently, researchers believe that it will, which will be a huge relief to the state.

"Overall we'll likely get more precipitation, but maybe less in terms of snowfall," said Duane Waliser, one of the researchers, in a news release.

While weak El Niños don't change the odds of precipitation being much different, a strong El Niño may make all the difference. In fact, it greatly increases the odds of a wet California winter. However, other areas, such as the tropics, experience drier conditions.

"The change in atmospheric dynamics shifts the rainfall," said Jim Randerson, one of the researchers. "So El Niño causes less rain to fall in many areas of the tropics, making forests more vulnerable to human-ignited fires."

These findings show what we may expect with the strong El Niño this year. With that said, it's still uncertain how strong these conditions will be.

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