Where has all the snow gone?

For those of us Minnesotans that live here because of the snow—this has been a tough winter so far. The weathercasters keep blaming El Niño, but if asked, I’m sure most of us would have a hard time explaining exactly what that means.  Do you know? If you’re a teacher, could you explain it to your students or, how about around the holiday dinner table? Here is our attempt at a simple, brief description that you can use, including a few video explanations, and some extra resources for you to dive deeper into.

The phenomenon known as El Niño results in changes in our US weather patterns. We experience:

  • drier conditions in the northwest (Buffalo, NY broke a 116 year old record in early December for lack of snow)
  • warmer weather in the midwest (Duluth, MN is recording temperatures at 40 degrees above zero in December)
  • the south and west is typically wetter (Miami, FL is experiencing their 3rd wettest December in local history).

This year, a very strong El Niño is taking shape, one that is comparable, but not the same at the one in 1997-1998. For more specific predictions for the US this winter, check out this video from NOAA and Mike Halpert, deputy director of NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.

The climate impacts typically associated with an El Niño during the months of December, January, and February. Credit: NOAA


“[El Niño] is a shift in the background state of the climate brought about by the sloshing of warm ocean water from its normal home in the western tropical Pacific over to the east. That redistribution affects how and where ocean heat is emitted into the atmosphere, which can alter the normal patterns of winds and stormy weather in the region” (Thompson, 2015). For a visual explanation of El Niño, click and watch this video from Climate Central (give the article a read too).

You might be thinking, “How are warmer Pacific Ocean waters going to affect me?” Here’s the short answer: everything is connected. The longer answer is one that we hope you can share with your students:

Warm water is pushed from the Western Pacific to the eastern Pacific (near Central and South America) because of a lack of trade winds. The warm water in the eastern Pacific piles up and fuels thunderstorm activity. The release of the ocean heat to the atmosphere through the thunderstorms causes the Hadley circulation to change. The Hadley circulation is what moves warmer air towards the poles. An increase in heat from El Niño can change the jet stream to shift over the Pacific Ocean. This can affect the weather patterns across the US.

The latest article from Climate Central, El Niño Could Usher in a Decade of Stronger Eventsdoes a great job of summarizing what is happening in the Pacific and what will presumably be happening in the next couple of months around the world. Another article, A guide to the biggest weather story of 2015, includes detailed tables and graphs about this event (as well as the event in 97-98), step by step drawings of the El Niño phenomenon, and the economic impacts it will have.

It’s important to remember that climate change is still contributing to our warming temperatures around the world. Deke Arndt, from NOAA, has a great analogy, as reported by the Guardian:  

“Long term climate change is like climbing a flight of stairs: over time you get higher and higher. El Niño is like standing on your tippy toes when you’re on one of those stairs. Both of those together work to create the warmest temperature on record. We would not be threatening records repeatedly if we had not climbed the stairs for decades.”

The bottom line, El Niño is here and it may be the strongest one on record. Scientists and forecasters say that it will be similar to past events, but will evolve in its own way. Be weather ready and climate smart!


Thompson, A. (2015, July 23). How This El Niño Is And Isn’t Like 1997. Retrieved December 22, 2015, from http://www.climatecentral.org/news/comparing-el-nino-to-1997-19278


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