Forecasters will have a clearer picture come August, but dangerous conditions continue to form.
The National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center (CPC) released its forecast for the probability of an El Niño forming this year in the Northern Hemisphere. In April, the CPC predicted a higher likelihood of a strong El Niño forming in 2017, putting the odds at 50%. Forecasters, however, caution weather conditions are still developing and more definitive data won’t come until August.
The most recent significant El Niño occurred in 2015-16, which resulted in warmer than usual temperatures. The flip side of El Niño is La Niña, a phenomenon marked by cold, wet weather in the Pacific Northwest, but dry, warm conditions in the Southeast and Southwest. A weak La Niña was observed in during the winter of 2016-17, according to Reuters.
Patterns Still Forming
To predict an El Niño, scientists closely monitor El Niño and the Southern Oscillation (ENSO) statistics derived from ocean and atmosphere weather data across the Pacific and the Southeast Asia maritime continent. When El Niños occur, ocean temperatures rise in the central and eastern Pacific, heating up the air and producing more moisture. El Niño also impacts the jet stream, or high-altitude winds. Forecasters have detected those same patterns emerging now, as evidenced by diminished equatorial winds and a warm mass of water rising between Peru and the international dateline.
On average, El Niño is followed by La Niña every three to four years, and vice versa. Sometimes, the back-and-forth cycles between the two stretch for as long as 10 years or happen in as little as two.
Mike Halpert, CPC’s Deputy Director, told the New York Times the only other time El Niño and La Niña switched in a short period of time — about three years — was in the 1960s. He also said it’s premature to predict how strong this El Niño would turn out to be — or if it will occur at all. “But history would tell us we wouldn’t see two strong events in three years,” Halpert added.
Halpert further hinted at murkiness in the data at this point in time. Current conditions don’t appear to be matching up with computer models for global climate, throwing even more doubt on any predictions. “If you just look at the current state of the ocean and the atmosphere, it doesn’t really look like what we typically expect to see as we head into El Niño,” Halpert said. “There’s been a little bit of head scratching.”
Clouding the El Niño forecast even more is an article on Weather.com pointing to near-average sea surface temperatures in the central equatorial Pacific region, which indicates neither El Niño or La Niña. In other words, the ENSO data supports neutral conditions.
Calmer Waters Ahead
El Niño typically means a less robust hurricane season. The Tropical Meteorology Team at Colorado State University recently based its outlook for a slightly below-average hurricane season this year on the expected return of El Niño. When El Niño dominates the weather cycle, wind shears in the tropical Atlantic increase, which restrains the formation of tropical cyclones, according to Weather.com.
That’s good news for homeowners and P&C insurers still reeling from $210 billion in economic losses booked last year from 315 natural catastrophes, reports Aon Benfield. Only 26% of those losses were covered by insurance.
While forecasts at this time remain uncertain, it only takes one strong storm in an otherwise calm hurricane season to cause massive destruction. Last year’s Hurricane Matthew resulted in $4 billion in damage along the East Coast.
Whatever the forecasters say, prepare your clients for any weather-related event. Make sure they take measures to fortify their homes and businesses against wind and water damage. Review their current policy to see if they possess enough coverage to recoup any losses. And always be available to help when they file a claim.