From Here on Out El Nino's Weather Impact Is Only Going to Grow

A Brief History of Global Warming
  • From drought to rains, El Nino is going to have a lot to say
  • California relief is uncertain, as is threat to Australia

How the weather plays out in the next six months will have a lot to say about the California drought, snow in the Northeast and even the price of natural gas.

A strong El Nino in the equatorial Pacific will make itself noticed in weather patterns across the globe. Tuesday’s update from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology said it’s the strongest El Nino since 1997-98, which was the biggest in records going back to 1950.

The phenomenon is characterized by warming ocean temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean and the atmosphere above it. El Ninos can bring torrential rain to South America, dry weather to Southeast Asia and storm-destroying winds to the Atlantic during hurricane season.

El Ninos peak in the December-January time frame, so the largest impacts could be due about then.

“Yeah, the super-sized El Nino should be a big player going forward,” said
Matt Rogers, president of the Commodity Weather Group LLC in Bethesda, Maryland.

Winter storm tracks across the U.S. can be suppressed by El Ninos, and that might mean much-needed rain and snow are headed for California. Through last week, 99.8 percent of the state was either abnormally dry or in some form of drought. This is the state’s fourth year of drought.

Warm Water

A wrinkle in this outlook is that other parts of the Pacific Ocean are also abnormally warm, said Dan Kottlowski, a meteorologist at AccuWeather Inc. in State College, Pennsylvania. Warm water off the West Coast might change the storm track, moving it north of California and robbing the state of its chance for some relief.

“That is what makes this, as we go into the fall and winter season, so interesting,” Kottlowski said.

El Ninos have been known to bring on droughts across the eastern part of Australia, the bureau said. Like the U.S., though, there are other forces at work that mean this isn’t a sure thing.

For example, the Indian Ocean is a bit warmer than normal so there is a possibility that it may moderate the impact of the El Nino on Australia.

For U.S. natural gas markets the question becomes whether the winter will be frigid or mild. El Ninos have been known to take the sting from winter’s chill across the northern part of the U.S.

Mild Winter

“If it stays strong, then we aim for a warmer winter for the U.S.,” Rogers said. It might also bring some big nor’easters to the Northeast, only it will be too warm for snow. 

That means the northern part of the country, which burns a lot of gas to heat homes and businesses during the winter, may consume less of it than normal.

With high gas inventories and the potential for increased production, a mild winter and weak demand would be a challenge for gas traders. 

“Well, it is likely to be a rough season,” said Teri Viswanath director of commodities strategy at BNP Paribas SA in New York.

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