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El Niño is Here and Already Affecting Florida's Winter

Scientists at NOAA's Climate Prediction Center have officially declared an El Niño, and it may already be influencing the weather patterns over Florida.

The term El Niño refers to a natural warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean water that occurs every 2 to 7 years.

It can create alterations in the higher-altitude winds that drive seasonal weather patterns. We've already seen evidence of this in parts of Florida this winter, where El Niño often produces above normal rainfall. Several Florida cities have already experienced a wet winter, and their rainfall departures since December 1 are listed below.

State Climatologist David Zierden isn't surprised by the above normal rainfall. He says the upper-level winds have been aligned in a way that sends abundant moisture across the state for months.

“We really have been in El Niño conditions since the beginning of October. We really started to see that in our weather patterns after the passage of Hurricane Michael”

The latest forecast from NOAA's Climate Prediction Center (CPC) says the chances for a wet spring almost double the chances for a dry spring across most of the Florida Peninsula.

This El Niño is expected to be weak, and forecasters at NOAA say there's only slightly greater than an even chance that it will last through the spring.

“This can lead to a difficult forecast”, Mr. Zierden says. “The strength of the El Niño doesn't correlate to more or less rainfall. The proper way to look at it is, the stronger the El Niño the more confidence we have in the forecast.”

Severe thunderstorms can also be more prevalent during El Niño winters, particularly over central and south Florida during early spring. The National Weather Service in Melbourne, FL, as an example, is forecasting stormier than normal conditions through April based on local studies the office has conducted. And David adds that deadly tornado outbreaks have occurred in both strong and weak El Niño years.

“One of our worst tornado outbreaks ever [in Florida} was in 1998, which was tied to a very strong El Niño. But we also had a deadly tornado outbreak in 2007, which was a weak El Niño. So I would say be prepared both ways.”

El Niño's affect on temperatures in Florida is generally a warm one, but it's not always as clear of a correlation as precipitation. The current forecast for a warm spring could be more tied to the warming climate of the past few decades, rather than the warmer Pacific Ocean noted this winter. And not all El Niños affect the weather pattern the same way. Several cities in South Florida, for example, are illustrating this nuance where rainfall totals have been below average for much of the winter.

The next update from NOAA on the conditions in the Pacific Ocean and resulting El Niño conditions across the globe will be released in Mid-March.

Meteorologist Jeff Huffman contributed to this report.

Sources include nearest National Weather Service office, National Hurricane Center, and the Florida Public Radio Emergency Network (@FloridaStorms).
Sources include nearby emergency management agencies, FEMA, and your local NPR affiliate. 
Sources include the Florida Department of Transportation, Florida Highway Patrol and other nearby traffic information.

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