Had enough meteorological mayhem? Sorry, thanks to El Ni単o, things are likely to get even worse

By Tom Yulsman | December 31, 2015 5:03 pm
Meteorological mayhem

The evolution of El Ni単o from the start of 2015 through Dec. 27 is seen in this animation using data from the Jason-2 satellite. Thesatellite measures the height of the sea surface. Expansion from warming raises sea level, and visa versa. In the image above, the warmest waters are depicted in white, the coolest in deep purple. The longtongue of warm water that develops along the equator is a hallmark of El Ni単o.(Source: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory)

From preternatural Christmas warmth enveloping the eastern U.S., to deadly tornados raking the nation’s midsection, to historic flooding that followed close behind, and most recently to a monstrous storm that unfroze the Arctic, the past several weeks have brought a pronounced bout of meteorological mayhem.

SEE ALSO: One of the most powerful N. Atlantic storms on record builds 55-ft waves and brings winter melting to North Pole

And that list doesn’t include the impacts that many millions of people in poor parts of the world have been experiencing. As my friend and colleague at the BBC, Matt McGrath, reports:

Drought and erratic rains have affected two million people across Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua. More floods are expected in Central America in January.

Millions more have been experiencing drought and crop failure in places like Ethiopia, Haiti and Papua New Guinea.

Much of what we’ve been seeing recently but definitely not all of it can be attributed in part to the powerful influence of the Godzilla in the room, El Ni単o.

El Ni単o impacts across many continents have been powerful for many months,” saysWilliamPatzert, a research scientist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “FromSouth America to Africa to the Western Pacific, El Ni単o has delivered huge impacts.”

Back in April, Patzert said this one had“the potential of being the Godzilla El Ni単o. Looks like he was right.

Unfortunately, things are almost certainly going to get worse. Perhaps much worse although for California, the intense bouts of precipitation that are likely to bring landslides in coming months should also help alleviate the drought that has sucked the state’s reservoirs almost dry.

To get a sense of El Ni単o’s possible connections to the recent meteorological mayhem, and what we probably have in store, I emailed some questions to Patzert.What follows are selections from his responses, interspersed with explanations and relevant graphics.

Let’s start with the historicflooding now underway in the United States:

meteorological mayhem

Flooding of the Meramec River near the intersection of I-44 and Route 141 west of St. Louis. (Photo: 息Kelsey Ray)

The photo above was taken by Kelsey Ray, a graduate student in the environmental journalism program I direct at the University of Colorado. The floodwaters are from the Meramec River in Missouri, which over the past fourdays has risen35 feet or more, thanks to record rains last weekend.

Here’s another view:

meteorological mayhem

Photo: 息Kelsey Ray

Are we looking at El Ni単o? The answer is not quite clear-cut, according to Patzert:

Here in the U.S., the canonical, or typical, pattern has not kicked in. Yet chaotic weatherbehavior in the Midwest and Southeast has been influenced by an active subtropical jet stream that is surely El Ni単o driven.

That comment prompted me to take a look at how the Pacific subtropical jet stream looks right now, and how it is forecast to evolve over the next two weeks. (For a primer on the rivers of fast moving air that we call “jet streams,” go here.)

Below is what the GFS weather model shows. First have a look at the screenshot, which I’ve labeled to help you get your bearings. Then click on it to watch the animation, paying close attention to the area I’ve indicated in red.

meteorological mayhem

Theactive, extended subtropical jet stream evident across the Pacific is a hallmark of El Ni単o. It helps to deliver storms to California and across the southern tier of the United States.

What of the tornadoes thatraked a broad section of the U.S. midsection, from Texas to Mississippi and, incredibly, up to Michigan?

Here’s how Bob Henson andJeff Masters of Weather Underground described the outbreak:

The widespread persistence of warm, humid conditions over the last few days has led to an unusual U.S. stretch of severe weather for December, including tornadoes from Mississippi to Michigan on Wednesday. The EF1 tornado that touched down in Canton, Michigan on December 23 was Michigan’s first December tornado on record. If tornadoes are confirmed on Monday, it will be the sixth calendar day in a row with at least one U.S. tornado reported, tying a monthly record set on December 22-27, 1982, during the super El Ni単o of 1982-83.

Is it a coincidence that the current tornadic outbreak looks similar to what happened in a previous super El Ni単o episode? Bill Patzert doesn’t think so:

Remember, El Ni単o Decembers have a history of tornado chaos. Is this El Ni単o?History says yes! Moist, unstable air colliding with deep troughs in November and December is El Ni単o’s history . . .Having said all that, the exact footprint of El Ni単o is difficult to pinpoint.

Not all of the recent meteorological mayhem has been vicious in nature. Moving to the West, a series of storms has had more of a beneficial effect. I created the following animation of satellite imagesto illustrate that point:

meteorological mayhem

Satellite images captured by NASA’s Terra satellite show just how much snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Range of California has improved since last year. (Source: NASA Worldview)

The first image in the animation shows California and much of the Western portion of the United States on Dec. 27, 2014. The second was acquired on Dec. 28 of this year. The Sierra Nevada range, from which California derives a good portion of its water by way of snowmelt, runs diagonally across the middle.

Actual snowpack data validates what you can see in the animation: At the end of 2014, Sierra snowpack was at just 50 percent of average for that time of year. As of Dec. 30 of this year, it stood at 105 percent of average. (For the latest data on Sierra snowpack, go here.)

That’s certainly good news. But it’s hasn’t come primarily as a result ofEl Ni単o not yet.

California’s drought was greatly exacerbated by a huge and persistent pool of very warm surface waters, dubbed “the blob,” off the coast of North America. This helped reinforce a stubborn ridge of high pressure that kept diverting storms away from California. But now, the blob is all but dead. And that’s allowing the normal cool-season parade of Pacific storms to blanket Western mountains.

As Patzert puts it:

In the West, the polar jet stream has overpowered the infamous ‘Blob,’ and the Northwest, much of the West and the Northern Sierras,are getting much needed snowpack and hope for drought relief. These are not your typical El Ni単o storms.

But that situation is about to change:

As we move into January, February and March, I expect the subtropical jet to move into the expected zonal pattern anddeliver the much discussed drenching across the southern tier of the U.S.

meteorological mayhemThat drenching, falling as snow in the mountains, is desperately needed in California, still suffering from exceptionaldrought. (Click on the thumbnail at right to see the current drought situation in the state.)

Of course, we’re talking about weather here, and that means there are no guarantees. Only odds. But Bill Patzert is ready to place his bets:

That theU.S., and especially the American West, will have a benign and quiet winter would bean unbelievably long shot.This episode is huge in size and intensity. My call: The U.S. is in for a wild ride in January, February andMarch, and perhaps into April and May. I ain’t alone in this forecast. If we are wrong, therewill be plenty of climate degrees revoked. Me? I’ll go into a witness protection program,and you will be able to reach me with ‘a note in a bottle’ in Tahiti or some other remoteSouth Pacific Island.

I’m bettingthat the note-in-a-bottle method will not be necessary.

  • frishy

    Few realize humanity has already earned extinction in the near term (under 100 years)
    thanks to our pollution, destruction of habitat, the current “extinction event”, over consumption and human over population.
    http://Www.vhemt.org the only non coercive means to reduce the numbers of humans who die at the end.

    • Emkay

      Your post deserves a ‘Darwin Award.. you know, extinction for all humans in under 100 years is a really moronic thing to say! enjoy your award..

    • John C

      Greetings from 1970. I just read “The Population Bomb” and I feel sorry for the few starving survivors left in the distant future 40 years from now.

    • OWilson

      Hey, what’s a little coercion between friends?

      I mean, if we’re all going to die anyway :)

  • Emkay
  • Thomas Edwin Hogan

    I read an article in the late 1970’s by a noted climate anthropologist pointing out the the USA had been in an unusually long benign weather period of 150 years. He said that he could not say when we would return to normal, whether it would be next year or fifty years, but we would return to normal. Welcome back to “normal”.

    • Michael Montero

      Not sure if serious or trolling.

      • OWilson

        That’s one of the intrinsic problems with “Climate Change” oracles and forecasters.

        Their interminable ramblings are hard to distinguish from a load of rubbish :)

        • Michael Montero

          Well I’m not sure what you mean by that. Climate science is a real science and anthropogenic climate change is real and absolutely known to be occurring. But the OP’s comments here are not consistent with what the science says. Frankly, neither Democrats or Republicans say much that is consistent with the truth about climate change and that makes sense. It’s not a political issue at all. It’s a scientific one and politicians really don’t understand it at all.

          • OWilson

            If they would only limit the Global Warming Debate to science and reality.
            It’s when folks, go into their delusional speculations on what the future “could” hold, it gets a little silly.
            They defy Beysian logic, and murder statistical probabilities by stringing a lot of “ifs” together to create their own version of Armageddon :)

          • roy rew

            Climate science is a real science and anthropogenic climate change is real and absolutely known to be occurring. There is no doubting that fact- note fact. The question is the degree of climate change attributable to mankind. Some of the best calculations ive seen say we contribute 0.02% to climate change. Lets get that firmed up as a LOGICAL next step

    • donl

      Well we still are in the ‘last’ ice age!..but we are going through a dramatic change helped along by man!,,everyone seems to think it’s just here in the US,,it’s worldwide!…ummm..do Americans know there are other countries?

  • Brenden Donaldson

    and all that rain still wont save California.

  • OWilson

    …”and most recently to a monstrous storm that unfroze the Arctic”.

    Looks like Al Gore was right, after all.

    And, one year early, too! :)

  • Thomas Edwin Hogan

    The Arctic Ocean is warming up, icebergs are growing scarcer and in some
    places the seals are finding the water too hot, according to a report to the
    Commerce Department from the Consulate, at Bergen , Norway

    Reports from fishermen, seal hunters and explorers all point to a radical
    change in climate conditions and hitherto unheard-of temperatures in the
    Arctic zone.

    Exploration expeditions report that scarcely any ice has been met as far
    north as 81 degrees 29 minutes.

    Soundings to a depth of 3,100 meters showed the gulf stream still very warm.

    Great masses of ice have been replaced by moraines of earth and stones, the
    report continued, while at many points well known glaciers have entirely

    Very few seals and no white fish are found in the eastern Arctic , while
    vast shoals of herring and smelts which have never before ventured so far
    north, are being encountered in the old seal fishing grounds.

    Within a few years it is predicted that due to the ice melt the sea will
    rise and make most coastal cities uninhabitable.

    New York Times, 1922

    • Tom Yulsman

      Mr. Hogan: The last sentence here is a total fabrication. The Norwegians, and the scientists of the day, were well aware that melting sea ice has no impact on sea level, just as a melting ice cube has no impact on the level of water in a glass. They were not stupid. The fabrication appears to date from about 2011, when if first began to appear. For more on this, see: http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/playing-climate-change-telephone

      More to the point you appear to be making, there was indeed a warm episode in the waters around Spitsbergen in 1922. But it was highly localized and dissipated quickly. By contrast, for years now, winter sea ice has been gone from larges areas around the Svalbard archipelago (of which the island of Spitsbergen is a part), areas where it once seemed to be a permanent aspect of winter. Moreover, conditions haven’t just changed around Svalbard. The Arctic overall has experienced dramatic changes twice the increase in temperature seen elsewhere in the world, and a host of associated ecosystem changes spanning the entire region. These have not been a mere blip, as was the 1922 event. They appear to be the new normal.

      You can interpret the significance of these changes however you’d like. But there is no denying the changes themselves. (Even though I know many people do.) Just as important, what happened in 1922 in a very small part of the Arctic has no bearing on what has been happening in recent years throughout the entire region.

      • Jack Taylor

        Tom Yulsman – is the Greenland Ice in the Arctic? If it melts what will be the effect on sea level rise? Perhaps you should re-read the last sentence by Thomas Edwin Hogan

        “Within a few years it is predicted that due to the ice melt the sea will rise and make most coastal cities uninhabitable.”
        I am unable to find SEA ICE in that sentence – simple “ice melt” –

        now what did he mean – all ice? sea ice?

        Did he perhaps omit some information? Is there a problem with asking for clarification when “it doesn’t fit”?

        Did he burn you with what you thought was a “gotcha” ?

        Or did he word it order to evoke counter converstion?

        Unfortunately I’m not a mind reader.

  • jack

    I agree with the true believers of Goreballwarmism. Humans are the reason for the season. We should immediately stop funding any humanitarian effort to feed, cure or assist those who are breeding at levels that are unsustainable and allow nature to take its course as it did for millennia before Western thumbsucking liberals decided the stupid needed to be “saved” like the puppies at the pound.

    • donl

      bu but conservatives don’t believe in Global Climate Change..they say its a liberals made up little lie!!….yeah screw dem puppies at the pound!!..not sure if you’re being sarcastic but sure do hope so!..

      • jack

        Please do not misstate the issue. Conservatives, and many others, do not believe in anthropogenic global warming. The models used to predict global warming do not predict “climate change” they predict global warming outside the range of natural variability which has only been observed if the data sets are “adjusted” which is exactly what the agencies like NASA and others have been doing.

        • OWilson

          Pleas do not presume to speak for all “conservatives”.
          We believe in climate change, (it always has, always will) and anthropegenic global warming is a fact.
          We do not believe that the minimal amount of extra man made heat is significant when measured against natural chotic, internal and external forces and is insignificant, on a global scale compared to the natural forces that give rise to ice ages (global cooling) and periodic melting (global warming)
          We are in an interglacial epoch as we speak.
          We do not feel it is necessary to join our enemies in cutting off the source of Western Culture and Capitalism, cheap fossil fuel energy. We look upon that as traitorous.
          And finally the idea that we should take seriously the policy proposals of a failed Peace and demonstrably corrupt political “Peace” organization that has failed to deter, wars, terrorism, government corruption. nu8clear proliferation, we consider to be downright (for want of a better word) nuts!

          • jack

            I agree with most of what you have posted. But if only Congress would pass some sensible laws prohibiting global warming all of the problems would be solved. The same with the UN. There’s nothing more threatening to a criminal than passing a law outlawing outlaws. It makes them stop in their tracks.

        • donl

          How about if we wait and see what NOAA has to say and for the actual event to work its way through..I of course due to my age might miss most but I’m pretty sure we’re getting some worldwide changes..if this is misstating the issue then so be it!

          • jack

            The reference was meant to show that government organizations have refused to show the scientific research that forms the basis for their “findings” about the climate. NOAA is just one of many complicit in this. They are obligated to produce records and the fact that they refuse to do so does nothing but create suspicion.


          • donl

            AHHH ..you bring up Gov. org….big mistake ! When have you ever got the straight anything from them?…Everything they’ve said isn’t dangerous as in agent orange for instance..the econmomy is improving!,the unemployment rate is down….But I won’t believe that NOAA is complicit with the BS!..The EPA? YES!.big oil! yep big business ..same..I’m retired Academia..and many of those I knew were scientists..who knew scientists from other countries as well,..The only ones other than those mention who poopoo the idea are conservatives and I’m not entirely sure why many of them believe the crap they’re fed..hell I don’t believe the crap either party toutes!…BTW most Scientific research is privately done!..not dependent on what the Government says!

          • OWilson

            And, that, unfortunately, is the state of scientific endeavor, circa 2016!

            As long as “the government” pays the bills, they will get what they want

          • donl

            In America!….thankfully their are scientists in other countries!

      • jack
  • Scott S.

    What I find lacking in all the conversation surrounding climate change is examination of presumptions in the arguments. This is especially critical in the interpretation of the findings. Predominantly, there appears to be the assumption that changes is bad or unwanted. This further leads to a corollary assumption that earth’s long term weather patterns are static and deviation from static is inference of introduction of new variables. These assumptions are unsupported based on the fact that the earth exists in a solar system that is full of variability that impacts earth in ways we are just beginning to understand. Couple that with the concept of earth’s tectonic plate structure who’s sole characteristic is to constantly change the earth’s features which also leads to vulcanism that is the greatest source of atmospheric composition change. Our (humans) ability to discern change in complex systems is dependent upon theoretical modeling. Currently, these models exclude the two biggest forces of variability impacting our world, presuming that these hold constant. And it is this assumption that has lead to the lack of credibility of current climate models. We (humans) have not yet reached the age where our ability to construct truly useful models due to developing understanding of our galactic an planetary properties is equaled by our lack of ability to computationally organize and calculate the mathematics of these primitive models. As difficult as it may be to swallow, humans current level to detect, recognize, and analyze change in complex systems is limited to localized events of short duration. Only in this very limited sense are we able to account for all the variables and produce useful models. Anything beyond that is just plain hubris.

    • OWilson

      Well said.

      There is a certain hubris and elitism in the mistaken belief that man can model open chaotic systems, or manufacture “cheap” non polluting sources of useful energy.

      The belief actually defies current science.

      In the first instance the computer program required to accurately model our climate would need an infinite and continuous input of variables. Including those flapping butterfly wings in Africa. A model as large and complicated as the solar system itself.

      Then there is no such thing as “manufactured” energy supplies, anymore than there are perpetual motion machines, that can produce more energy than they consume in the process.

      Science does allows the concentration of energy, wind/solar power/nuclear/batteries at the expense of the background entropy, but which require huge often hidden “Investments” in cash and resouces to artificially subsidize them.

      That can be useful in certain cases (nuclear subs, cell phones, solar panels, windmills), but the manufacturing infrastructure required to produce, transport, install, maintain and replace them draws on conventional energy supplies, and can not exist without them.

      Can a solar powered factory produce solar panels at no net cost?

      The ones touting these progressive sources of energy are generally the ones from the political spectrum who least understand markets, cost benefit analysis, and, when faced with reality will rack up unsustainable debt,and make new laws to force the consumer to pay whatever it costs, or cut down on his use, and generally lower his standard of living.

      The ones in charge of course will be allowed their “credits” to maintain their lavish lifestyles, because they are the elite, and are saving the planet, mankind, or something, and they always, always know best.

      Sound familiar?

      The only thing missing are the endless “5 Year Plans” to make it all happen.:)



ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.


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