MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - Ask anyone around what El Nino is, and you're likely to get many different answers, but you've likely heard about it coming on strong this winter. That's why WMBF First Alert Meteorologist Andy Stein set out to break down the science, and more importantly, what it means for us.
Andy sat down with Steven Pfaff with the National Weather Service, and he was able to explain what an El Nino actually is: "An El Nino is part of what's called El Nino Southern Oscillation, and is just one phase where the equatorial Pacific waters are above normal. Usually a half-degree Celsius gets us into El Nino. It might not sound like much, but when you think of the entire scope of the equatorial pacific, that's quite large. A strong El Nino is defined by a 1.5 degree Celsius change."
Simply put, El Nino is a warming of the eastern Pacific Ocean that occurs every few years. This warming of the ocean has impacts on weather worldwide, and according to Pfaff, this one may be one of the bigger El Nino's in recent history.
Not only are the water temperatures in the Atlantic already above normal, they're still warming.
"This one now is already at around 3 degrees C [above normal] so, in fact, this could be the mother of all mothers..." says Len Pietrafesa, a professor at Coastal Carolina University.
So we know what El Nino is, we know it's going to be a big one, and we know it impacts the weather across the world. But what does it mean for our weather, right here?
Believe it or not, we're already seeing El Nino at work, right now, in hurricane season. When an El Nino is present, the Atlantic Ocean tends to see more wind shear and dry air that cuts down on the number of storms we see, and how intense storms can become. So, what can we expect moving forward for the rest of the season?
"I think another important impact that El Nino has, at least with respect to the Atlantic hurricane basin, is when we do have El Nino, we typically see a lower number of hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean and the Atlantic Ocean," Pfaff explains.
So, basically, we're going to continue with a below-normal season. Now, hurricane season ends on November 30, and by that point we are working our way into the heart of winter. We normally see the most impacts from El Nino during the winter months and with this possibly being one of the strongest El Nino's in history, we need to focus on what may happen from November to March.
Pietrafesa explains his thoughts on this winter and what we will be able to expect: "So you end up with more winter weather, more winter-like weather, so you get precipitation and it doesn't necessarily mean you're going to get more snow, and you're not necessarily going to get more extra-tropical cycles forming, but you will get more winter weather."
The last big El Nino in 1997/1998 brought us record rains. Upwards of 20-25 inches of rain fell from December to February. Many of our local rivers rose above flood stage. While it was a wet winter, we saw very little snow or ice in our area. In comparison, the 1983/1984 El Nino season brought us record snow where upwards of 10-20 inches of snow fell in parts of the Pee Dee.
So does this mean we need to be ready for flooding and heavy snow this winter? Possibly, but it's important to remember that other factors and weather patterns around the world can also impact our weather. But with El Nino being so strong this year, more rain, more clouds, more coastal storms and the possibility of more wintry weather will all be likely as we enter in to the 2015-2016 winter. But El Nino does not end when winter does. An El Nino event can last anywhere from three months to eight years.
That means the impacts from El Nino may linger into spring. If that's the case, we may see a more active severe weather season as more moisture helps to fuel more frequent and stronger storms in the spring.
With a lot of media outlets dubbing this as the "Godzilla El Nino," it makes it sound dangerous and threatening. So we have to think about ways we can prepare for the onset of a strong pattern change.
Pfaff says we should always be ready: "You know we live in a part of the country where we get all sorts of weather hazards, so our level of preparedness needs to be a lot higher to begin with. With an El Nino of course, if you live along the river of flood zone or an area that is vulnerable to flooding, certainly we want to do what we can now to take into account any additional rainfall that we get this winter that's above normal. So that would be on level of preparedness but also with severe weather, with hurricanes, with wildfires we live in a unique part of the country where we're impacted by a whole host of different things. So our level of preparedness right off the beginning needs to be at a high level. There's just too much at stake not to be prepared year round for any hazard."
That's the bottom line: be informed and be prepared. We may see more active weather this winter and spring because of El Nino, but you should always be ready and prepared just in case things get nasty.