ABILENE, Texas (KTAB/KRBC) – A strong El Niño pattern is expected during the winter months this year. That means you might expect, at the very least, a wet winter this year.
According to the Climate Prediction Center with the National Weather Service, the latest synopsis states that El Niño is anticipated to continue through the Northern Hemisphere spring (with an 80% chance during March – May 2024). There is a chance (30%) of a “historically strong” event that rivals 2015-16 and 1997-98 seasons.
Stronger El Niño events increase the likelihood of El Niño-related climate anomalies, but do not necessarily equate to strong impacts locally.
So, what does this mean for us here in the Big Country exactly? Well let’s take a look at some possibilities that could happen here over the next few months.
Just to be clear, El Niño nudges the odds in favor of certain climate outcomes such as wetter conditions and cooler air, but never ensures them.
During El Niño, the jet stream tends to extend eastward and shift southward during El Niño winters. You can think of the jet stream as a river of air, which carries more moisture and precipitation along the southern tier of the United States during El Niño.
As a result, it is not surprising to see an increase in precipitation over the southern half of the country. The fine line between the type of precipitation is obviously the temperature at a given location.
Here is the seasonal temperature outlook for this winter December 2023 through February 2024.
We are expected to have near normal temperatures during the upcoming winter months. At this point, this is not necessarily a positive sign if you are hoping for snow in the Big Country.
For the month of December, the average temperature (1991-2023) is about 47°F. For January, the average temperature is only a couple degrees cooler at 45.5°F. February averages warm up a bit to about 49°F. These temperatures are all above freezing, so typically, snow won’t be a concern.
The interesting thing is, the low temperatures during the winter months tend to dip below freezing due in part to strong cold fronts that travel from the north. However, with a strong El Niño present, that means the Northern US will be warmer than normal.
So, with the Northern US being warmer, we won’t receive as strong of a blast of cold air. How cold temperatures can get this winter will be a big difference in snow or rain events.
With that being said, let’s take a look at the average snowfall amount during all El Niño winters:
On this map above, areas shaded in blue indicate areas that receive more snowfall than normal. Areas shaded in brown receive less snowfall than normal.
If you look at the Lone Star State, you can tell that most of North Texas and the Panhandle have a light blue shade to it, meaning we typically get more snowfall during an El Niño winter.
That means we typically get about an inch or two more snowfall in an El Niño winter than we’d normally get. During a strong El Niño, like we are expecting to see this year, the effects are even more pronounced.
More snow starts to show up in Northern California, the Four Corners states, panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, and the southern Appalachia region. That can be seen below:
You can notice the difference in the shades of blue between a normal El Niño compared to a strong El Niño winter. During a strong El Niño winter, here in West Texas to the panhandle region, we tend to receive between two and four inches on average.
It’s time to dig a little deeper so you can get an understanding of what could happen this winter. Below is a map showing a count of El Niño winters. This map shows out of the 13 moderate-to-strong El Niño winters, how many winters had below or above average snowfall?
If the area is shaded red, that means most winters had below average snowfall. If it shaded gray, that means most winters had above average snowfall.
The Big Country and much of the panhandle region is shaded in gray. What that means is during strong El Niño winters, we typically see above average snowfall. Given all the information provided, it seems like our chances for snowfall during some point of the winter is inevitable.
Now, one major red flag about all this is unsurprisingly, because of climate change. Over most of the contiguous United States, we have trended towards less snowy winters in the past 65 years.
This doesn’t mean that it never snows, or we cannot get big snowstorms, but it does mean that snowfall has gradually trended downward over time. Here in the south, the tendency towards warmer winters is a snow killer.
So, will the expected pattern of El Niño pan out for us this winter? Only time will tell, but in the meantime, it is fun to imagine the possibilities. BCH meteorologists will for sure let you know the first time we have the potential for snow in the Big Country.