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By Tori Uhland

December 8, 2023

El Niño, a climate phenomenon characterized by the warming of sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean, has far-reaching effects on weather patterns across the globe. One of its most notable impacts is on winter weather in the United States.

El Niño disrupts the normal atmospheric circulation, leading to warmer and wetter conditions in certain regions of the United States during winter. The most significant effects are often felt in the southern states, including California, the Southwest, and the Gulf Coast. It is usually the southern third to half of the United States that sees the wetter weather. El Niño brings an uptick in precipitation, so there is a lot of hope that the phenomenon comes to fruition to help relieve us of this prolonged drought.

When it comes to El Niño in Colorado, it can have mixed results. The weather pattern is associated with warmer temperatures throughout the state and drier conditions in northern Colorado. Conversely, southern Colorado may experience increased precipitation during an El Niño winter. This can lead to more significant snowfall in the southern mountain ranges and potentially benefit water reservoirs and agricultural activities in that part of the state. This is beneficial for crops in the southern half, but there is no guarantee that it will happen this way. Some El Niño events may bring increased rainfall to the state, benefiting water resources and agriculture. However, the specific distribution of precipitation can vary, leading to regional differences in water availability.

So far, the climate outlook seems to have been accurate with a warmer December 2023 than it was last year in 2022. Since 1950, the seven strongest El Niño events have produced wetter-than-normal conditions along the West Coast and southern tier of the United States, especially in the Southeast. During the 2015-16 and 1957-58 El Niños, conditions were not as wet as expected and were even dry in some areas.

The El Niño phenomenon isn’t a guarantee for certain conditions, but it tilts the odds in favor of a particular set of outcomes. This doesn’t mean we will continue to see a warmer winter, or that we will start to see wetter weather, but there is a fairly high chance of it, and we can continue to hope!

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