El Nino to create unpredictable winter

Jan 11, 2016

2015 U.S. Winter Outlook showing "wetter-than-average" conditions for Eastern North Carolina due to strong El Nino.
Credit NOAA

Eastern North Carolina has been experiencing unusual weather this winter – Christmas Day marked record breaking warm temperatures.  A couple of weeks later, there were reports of snow flurries and temperatures dipping into the middle 20's.  The unsteady conditions felt throughout the nation has been attributed to El Nino.  Chris Thomas has more on how it’s affected, and may affect, the region.

Meteorologists love a challenge – at least, Lara Pagano does.

This winter is shaping up to be one of the more challenging in her 8 years with the National Weather Service. While Eastern North Carolina winters are known for their fickle nature, residents, especially meteorologists have something extra to contend with: El Nino.

“We talk about throwing a wrench into things and it really does for us as meteorologists.”

El Nino is a periodic warming of sea-surface temperatures in the eastern-equatorial Pacific, which begins on the west coast.  El Nino’s effects are felt the world over, though, from arid conditions over Southeast Asia to sopping wet winters throughout the United States.

The west coast, and parts of Texas, have had major snowfalls, but El Nino in the south, including Eastern North Carolina, often manifests as periods of heavy rain and swift temperature changes. The region experienced record high temperatures Christmas Day, but snow flurries were reported throughout the Inner Coastal Plain – including Greenville, Kinston, and Goldsboro – and the Outer Banks, earlier this week.

 “We have seen above normal precipitation already this winter. We have some locations that have gotten three times the amount of precipitation over the past couple months than we typically see.”

El Nino events usually occur every 5 to 7 years. The last hit took place between 2009 and 2010, but was relatively mild compared to what has been noted this year. Flooding along the Mississippi River made international headlines last week, and Pitt, Greene, and Lenoir County have been under flood warnings for more than a week.

Flooding has been especially bad along the Neuse River in Kinston. According to Neuseway Center Director, Bobby Cox, the river rose above 17 feet just before the New Year – 14 feet is the threshold for flood levels along that part of the Neuse.

He said the river’s crest dipped to 16 feet, 6 inches Thursday.

“…and we’re going to stay there through the weekend, so hopefully, it’ll start to drop after that.”

Cox said, though, the heavy rain at the tail end of 2015 has had hindered the park’s ability to offer many of their primary services.

“The water has continued to rise, it has come up into the park. We’ve had to close our campground area, our playground, our picnic facility, and we’ve also had to barricade roads down from us and the water table has rose up and come into the cave downstairs where we have a few animals at.”

Officials say flooding in the cave area is minimal and the animals are fine, but power has been cut to the RV Park on the grounds. Cox said he’s seen flooding like this before, but only during hurricane season. Flooding situations like these are especially frustrating to Cox since unseasonably warm winters would bring families out to the park.

Cox even said its impacted construction personnel doing major work on the Queen Street Bridge, which leads to Downtown Kinston’s main thoroughfare.

“Some of the guys that are doing construction on the bridge stay in our campground and, of course, they’ve had to relocate, so they can’t really work on the bridge when the river’s this high. They can do stuff up above ground and work up there, but they can’t get around the bridge too easy and work like they need to…”

Bryan Rick, a spokesperson for the North Carolina Department of Transportation, said there’s no major delays to regional road projects due to El Nino and the Queen Street Bridge Project should be finished by May

Forecasters believe this year’s El Nino could be one of the strongest on record, comparable to the Biblical like winter of 1997-1998 – during which nation-wide records were broken for precipitation and heat.

Pagano said due to unusual activity in the southern jet stream and the polar, northern jet stream pushed further north than usual, the region’s atmospheric roller coaster ride could be just starting.

“So, what I would see over the next couple months is that we’re going to have this fluctuating series of temperatures that are coming through the area.”

North Carolina has had more than its usual share of moisture over the past few months.  According to data from the State Climate Office of North Carolina, the autumn of 2015 was the wettest in more than a century, when records on rainfall were first kept, with a statewide average of 20.3 inches.

That’s meant waterlogged crops for local farmers and the crippling damage that came along with it. Millions of dollars’ worth of crops were lost across the state between September and November.

Mike Carroll, who works at the Craven County Cooperative Extension branch, said the effect torrential rain has had on local farmers, especially those who grow soy beans and wheat, was severe.

“Many of our soy bean producers, as an example, had anywhere from 10 to 50 percent damage soy beans, simply because those crops could not be harvested; they got wet, they got infected with diseases, and so you ended up with an unmarketable product. So, for them, that’s a very significant loss.”

Between a record breaking autumn 2015 and an expected onslaught of precipitation during the winter, the repercussions might be felt throughout 2016, not only for crop farmers, but for livestock owners, too.

Since cattle and poultry farmers depend on crops to feed their livestock, a crop that’s mostly mold-ridden is unusable, creating scarcity, making vital feed supplies more expensive.

“Another potential impact that we’re looking at in field crop production is that typically, when you have an El Nino (system), you have a delayed spring planting, because of the frequent rains, and then that’s followed by a pretty extreme drought period during late summer.”  

But he said it’s difficult to tell how much of an effect systems like El Nino or La Nina – which has the opposite effect as El Nino – will have on our area and its farmers. The soil in Eastern North Carolina is diverse, ranging from rich and naturally damp to sandy and dry.

“But there’s another side to this…those who have sandy soil, these frequent rain falls are going to be a plus. They’re going to provide frequent rainfall in soils that don’t retain much water.”  

An additional upside to El Nino is it lessens the chance of hurricanes on the Atlantic Basin. In the last major El Nino event in the late 1990s, only four hurricanes developed in the Atlantic, one of them being intense. That’s down from the average of 5.8 hurricanes in normal years.

In general, though, Carroll assures, El Nino doesn’t affect areas like Eastern North Carolina as much as the west coast or the Great Plains.  

He said some parts of the nation, including South Texas and Florida, can expect 3 to 6 inches of excess rainfall during El Nino winters, whereas Eastern North Carolina can expect 1 to 3 inches of extra rainfall during these systems.  

“So, the impact of these weather trends – El Nino or La Nina or even a neutral year don’t really impact the Eastern portion of North Carolina that much.”

The effects of this winter won’t be known entirely until long after its finished – perhaps years afterward – but in the short term, Laura Pagano says keep your eyes out for the dangers that come along with periods of heavy rain, especially if you live near a river prone to flooding.

“If you live along a river or you know your area is very susceptible to flooding during heavy rain events, I always say ‘turn around, don’t drown.’ That’s kind of our slogan here at the National Weather Service.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency also advices home owners to take photos of, and itemize, their belongings and review their current insurance policy to see what may be covered in the event of a flood.

http://www.pmel.noaa.gov//tao/elnino/faq.html (An FAQ page on El Nino from NOAA)

https://www.floodsmart.gov/floodsmart/pages/media_resources/fact_gulfwinflood.jsp (Information from FEMA on how to prepare for flooding)

http://climate.ncsu.edu/climateblog?id=170 (Information on North Carolina's wettest autumn on record)