El Niño Grows Up?

This blog is written by our own Experiential Education Intern Harsha Maragh. Harsha graduated in 2015 from Western Connecticut State University with a degree in Theoretical Meteorology. Her interests in this field include paleoclimatology, global climate change and the El Niño circulation (so brainy, this one!).

Harsha aims to create unique projects that use her meteorology background to bring more awareness to environmental issues. Her goal is to one day work with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, where she can help to make climate change a priority in policy and decision-making. She is passionate about environmental issues, specifically air quality and water pollution.


Once again the infamous El Niño effect is making headlines. This time, however, it has been nicknamed the “Godzilla El Niño,” because of its potentially monster-like effect on the upcoming winter.

Following the El Niño has been long been a fascination of mine, and it was the focus of my undergraduate research. So just in case you’re not as crazy about El Niño as I am, here is some background information to get you warmed up:

El Niño is a circulatory oceanic pattern (meaning that ongoing interactions between wind, warm water and cooler water create cyclical weather patterns). It occurs every 2 to 7 years and lasts for 9 to 12 months at a time, on average, and is characterized by unusually warm water currents that come up off the west coast of South America. However, since El Niño is a result of the ocean and atmosphere interacting, it affects weather all around the world. (Although the El Niño circulation pattern may be strong and indeed very influential on our weather patterns, other more unpredictable circulations - such as the two very cool phenomena of Arctic Oscillation and Polar Vortex - can come into play, bringing with them winter storms and colder temperatures).

Icy vortices notwithstanding - scientists have determined that the El Niño of the 2015-2016 season will cause this winter to be wetter and warmer than average. A representative from NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association) has even said that this might be one of the strongest El Niño events on record, right up there with the ones that occurred in 1982-1983 and 1997-1998. This particular El Niño has been keeping temperatures high since May but its peak won’t come until late fall and winter.

Which California is counting on, because, strong El Niño events like this one bring plenty of precipitation for the West Coast. For us New Yorkers, El Niño means that this winter will be on the milder side and we can expect rain instead of snow in some cases - so your dog will only need his raincoat instead of his snow booties.

Another bonus from The Boy: we can look forward to is less heating degree-days. 6% less to be exact according to a NOAA scientist. Heating degree-days are a measure of how much (measured in degrees) and for how long (measured in days) the outside air temperature was below a certain temperature (in our case, 65° F). This complicated calculation eventually results in numbers that will help to determine how much energy is required to heat a building. So because of the slightly higher than average temperatures in NYC due to El Niño, we have been saving some energy and extra $$$!

But before we put “Godzilla El Niños Every Year’ on our holiday wishlist, consider this: a major concern is that globally warmer temperatures can influence the frequency of stronger El Niño events. So while we’re basking in our sweater-weather temperatures this winter in NYC, we can continue to take small steps to lessen our carbon footprint and fight climate change. Some suggestions:

  • taking public transportation, riding a bike or walking instead of driving

  • weather-stripping, caulking and insulating your home to reduce drafts and lower heating costs

  • using compact fluorescent light bulbs, which save 2/3 more energy than a regular incandescent light bulb

  • using water saving showerheads and toilets

  • always REDUCE, REUSE and RECYCLE when possible!

If you’ve been inspired to check out the heating and cooling degree days data for yourself, the National Weather Service has tables of the week’s and month’s data.

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