The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared this year’s climate to be an El Niño year based on conditions in the Pacific Ocean.
El Niño and La Niña are Spanish for “the boy” and “the girl,” respectively. But when it comes to climate, they’re part of an irregular cycle of sea surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean near the equator.
This year, NOAA declared conditions are most in line with El Niño. That means Alaskans will likely see slightly higher temperatures and more storms, especially around the Gulf of Alaska. But high altitude winds, like the jet stream, are weaker in the summer so the effects won’t be noticeable until later this year.
“It’s really as we move into the fall time and the storming increases again that we see the main effects of El Niño,” said Rick Thoman, the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ climate specialist.
He said just a few degrees difference near the equator changes where tropical storms form and can affect weather all around the ocean.
“Variations in ocean surface temperatures of one or two degrees 1,000 miles from Hawaii can wind up affecting our weather because those big, giant tropical thunderstorms can control how the jet stream flows and meanders at higher latitudes,” he said.
But Thoman was also quick to point out that while El Niño is the current prediction, weather can be fickle. El Niño and La Niña stack the deck towards certain conditions, but they’re just one factor forecasters take into account.
“There have been El Niño years when it has wound up colder than normal but we’re loading the dice to be warmer than normal for the upcoming winter,” he said.
El Niño conditions typically last 9 to 12 months. The longest El Niño recorded lasted about a year and a half from summer 1986 through spring 1988, but it could dissipate as early as spring of next year.