Chris Farley brought El Niño into the American lexicon in a 1997 Saturday Night Live skit, when he dressed as a wizard and recited lines like, “El Niño is Spanish for… the Niño” (Trust me, it’s funnier when he says it.), but still most skiers and snowboarders don’t know much more about what El Niño than Farley did. An El Niño condition occurs on every few years, so you might as well get your facts straight.
Q: What is El Niño?
A: El Niño is the Peruvian name given to an abnormal warming of the oceans around Christmastime off the west coast of South America. Since this colloquial naming occurred, scientists have defined exactly what El Niño means to them: A warming of the ocean of more then 0.5 degrees Celsius (about one degree Fahrenheit) for three consecutive months in an area along the equator from the west coast of South America west toward the central Pacific Ocean. That’s a handful of a definition, so simplify the details and think of it as a warming of the central Pacific Ocean.
Q: What does El Niño mean to skiers?
A: Skiers care about El Niño because a significant change in water temperature across a large area ocean affects weather patterns across the globe. Since the strength of El Niño peaks during the Northern Hemisphere’s fall, winter, and early spring, El Niño’s effects on weather also peak during winter. Some of these effects include droughts across Australia, heavy rain over Peru, and a change in the jet stream across North America, which influences the location of the heaviest snow. For the US, El Niño causes a more southerly storm track, which often brings higher than average snowfall to the southern third of the US, and less snow with warmer temperatures across the northern third of the US. This often means that Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico and sometimes southern Utah and Colorado can see increased snowfall in El Niño years. There can also be cooler-than-normal weather across the southeastern US, which can help ski areas in Georgia, Alabama and North Carolina with their snowmaking. If things come together just right, some storms can track up the East Coast and bring good amounts of snow to eastern areas of the Mid-Atlantic and New England.
Q: Are El Niño’s effects predictable?
A: El Niño always comes in slightly different shades. We usually see an El Niño every couple of years, but the strength of El Niño changes each time, and so to does its effects on worldwide weather. And, El Niño is not the only climate phenomenon that can influence weather across the globe, so just looking at El Niño will rarely allow meteorologists to accurately predict snowfall for the season ahead. So keep an eye on what scientists are predicting for El Niño and remember that it often means more snow across the southern third of the US, but also remember that each snowstorm has a mind of its own and you’ll be far better served looking for snow on the 5-day forecast than betting on a 3-6 month snow forecast based on Chris Farley’s “the Niño”.
Meteorologist Joel Gratz is the creator of opensnow.com and is based in Boulder, Colo.