Talking, or more accurately, speculating about the weather is an age-old conversation topic. Indeed, it ranges back to the time of cavemen (and cavewomen, to be fair). Back then it might have been more relevant in terms of survival, in terms of finding shelter for a cold winter or setting sail for a long voyage.
Nowadays, it’s more often a go-to topic for small talk when we run out of things to say to that person that we barely know at the gym. And here in Teton Valley, it’s also the continual source of both hope and despair for winter sport enthusiasts. This year, a certain Spanish phrase dominates these weathered conversations. This phrase is “El Niño.” So what is this “El Niño,” other than a potential buzzkill for skiers?
“El Niño,” part of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), is a phenomenon characterized by an “oscillation of the ocean-atmosphere system.” El Niño is part of a climatic event that causes the ocean and atmosphere to vary from normal conditions, occurring in an unpredictable cycle. El Niño’s cycle generally takes place every two years to seven years.
There are a few different things going on in non-El Niño years with the ocean and atmosphere that lead to the conditions that make up El Niño. The ocean and atmosphere, called the ocean-atmosphere system, are closely connected. In the Equatorial Pacific Ocean, cold waters reside in the central and eastern parts, off the coast of South America. In the western parts, near Australia and Indonesia, warmer waters prevail. Think of the island that you’d want to take a cruise to. If you’re in the western Pacific, there will be no wetsuit required. A wind belt commonly known as the tradewinds, or tropical easterlies, causes this "temperature gradient" of enjoyably warm water in the western Pacific and brain-freeze inducing cold water in the central and eastern Pacific. The tradewinds come from the east and flow westward. Along the way, they push the warm water near the surface of the Pacific from east to west, piling it up near Australia and Asia. To replenish the water flowing west, cold water rises up from the depths in a process called "upwelling" off the coast of South America.
Scientists constantly monitor the temperature of the ocean. There are several buoys in the Pacific Ocean ranging from the Philippines to South America that measure the temperature of sea surface and subsea surface. When temperatures begin to rise in the central and eastern Equatorial Pacific, talk of El Niño begins. For reasons still not completely understood, changes occur that weaken the temperature gradient of the Pacific and thereby weaken the tradewinds from pushing the warm waters westward. The warm water spreads to the central and eastern Pacific. It was around Christmastime when fishermen in South America noticed these warm waters the most, dubbing the phenomena “El Niño,” which translates to “the boy,” and named in reference to the Christ child.
We often hear news anchors state things like, "A high pressure system is firmly in place so we’ll keep seeing sunny skies for the week." Or perhaps, "A low pressure system is moving in so get ready for some rain." A low-pressure system signals rain and a high-pressure system signals clear skies. Warm waters are the bringers of storms. When the water is warm at the surface, the air above the ocean is also warmed. This warm air is propelled further up the atmosphere (think of how hot air rises in a hot air balloon) and eventually cools and condenses into a cloud. Off the coast of California, there's a low-pressure system that is causing more precipitation in the southern and western United States due to El Niño. Ultimately, at the core, El Niño is simply when there are warmer than normal waters in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of South America. The exciting part, for both good and bad, are the effects this has on global weather patterns.
So, what does El Niño do to the weather? In terms of temperature, an El Niño brings warmer than average temperatures to the northern part of the U.S. and cooler than average temperatures to the southern U.S. In terms of precipitation, there will likely be increased precipitation in the Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida. With a strong El Niño (as we seem to be currently experiencing), California can experience this much-needed rain as well. It will tend to be a bit drier in the Pacific Northwest as well as the Northeast.
Concerning Teton Valley, there can be an expected slight increase in temperatures and drier conditions. To sum it up, we are in one of the more anticlimactic zones of the United States when it comes to El Niño. As Bruce Mason of the Teton Valley Weather Facebook Page states, “...As we move into the heart of winter, the El Niño ripples have less of an impact on Teton Valley, changing neither temperature nor precipitation very much. So an El Niño snow season might start off being very exciting for the skiers, but then taper off to a regular winter after all. ”
According to the NOAA, strong El Niño conditions are expected through January and February and El Niño effects will most likely continue for the next six months. Keep in mind that most of this is still speculation. There are far too many factors that affect climate this year, such as “The Blobs” of warm water off the coast of California, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, rising global temperatures ... I can see your eyes starting to close so we’ll stop there. As my aunt Donna says, “I like to imagine weather models as similar to fashion models. They can often change their minds and get into fights amongst themselves.”
So perhaps a small buzz kill is justified for skiers this season as we see California ski resorts being hit with snow. But luckily, there’s a potentially happy ending for 2016. There’s a chance that La Niña will follow next year. La Niña, the cool phase of ENSO translates to “the girl child” and is also known as the anti-El Niño. It generally has the opposite effects of El Niño in terms of weather changes, and would very likely bring wetter conditions to Teton Valley. Skiers and boarders: keep your fingers crossed.
Kelsey received a Bachelor of Science in Anthropology and Geography with a minor in Biology at California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo. After graduating in 2014, she moved to Teton Valley, where she works as a personal trainer in Driggs and enjoys the snowy weather with her boyfriend, two dogs, cat, and 6 chickens. For any questions about the article, feel free to email her at email@example.com.