▶️ Little Did I Know: Science of El Niño and Central Oregon’s slow winter start

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You don’t have to be a meteorologist to know that this winter is off to a slow start. Meteorologists and arm chair meteorologists alike are pointing the finger at El Niño. 

I have to admit that I’ve been avoiding doing a full “Little Did I Know” about El Niño because it’s a very complex event. But this year in particular, it has become the fodder on social media for all winter sports fans in Central Oregon. That’s not surprising. The El Niño impacting the Pacific this year is a bit stronger than we’ve seen in a while. 

You have no idea how hard to explain this is in just a few minutes. But let me see if I can give you the nutshell version of El Niño because — trust me — you don’t want to go through a semester of Thermodynamics or incur massive school debt like I did. 

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For reasons that are too detailed to get into now, the winds in the Pacific Ocean — the world’s largest body of water — generally flow from east to west. They are called the trade winds, which usually push all the lighter, warmer water to the west where it pools up near Australia and Southeast Asia. That warmer air rises which makes for lower pressure and, as it rises, it cools. That leads to condensation and precipitation.

Where the warm water came from is now getting replaced by heavier, colder water that is full of nutrients that make the fish — and the people who catch them — very happy.

In an El Niño year, those trade winds become weaker. The warmer water gets spread out over more of the Pacific Ocean, having massive impacts on where storms develop and often funneling warmer, moist air into the northern latitudes. 

Meanwhile, the cold water that made the fish so happy sinks down, forcing the fish to leave home to find more hospitable places to feed. And makes fisherman not so happy. 

Now here’s the thing. The results in Central Oregon can be a bit of a toss-up for both El Niño and it’s counterpart, La Niña — which we just had in the past three years.

Last year’s La Niña would have theoretically made California very dry in the winter. We all know that wasn’t the case. California went from 90% in drought last winter to drought free in just one season. So just because we’re in an El Niño or La Niña year doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to act like it. 

So how long is thing gonna last? Well, at this point that odds are pretty high that it will be around through March. But Mother Nature always has tricks up her sleeves and generally tries to stay balanced, so don’t put your skis away just yet. We’re just getting started. 

Have a Little Did I Know topic idea for Scott? Email it to littledidiknow@centraloregondaily.com

 

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