Although Earth recently experienced some of the hottest documented years, scientists say it was in a cooling period with the naturally occurring La Niña weather pattern. Now, an opposing El Niño could boost warming temperatures further.
The past nine years have been the hottest on record globally, according to NASA, with 2022 being the fifth warmest since 1880. Scientists from the federal agency said the warming is likely causing extreme weather and more severe wildfires and hurricanes. An El Niño event means seasonal and human-caused heating could become more severe.
What does that mean for the Northeast and the Adirondacks?
Rolling the dice
The probability of higher temperatures in the Adirondacks is increased during an El Niño, but that doesn’t mean the park can expect heat waves.
Normally, winds blowing east to west push warm surface waters toward Asia, but La Niña and its opposing El Niño disrupt that pattern for months or years. David Dewitt, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center, said El Niños impact regions differently.
“There are certain parts of the country that have a very large impact from El Niño: Southern tier of the U.S., especially Southwest and Southeast, or the Northwest, and the Great Lakes,” Dewitt said. “But there are other parts of the country, and the globe as well, that are not impacted so much. So the Northeast U.S. does not have a very strong impact from El Niño.”
Historically, the Adirondacks have experienced cooler and drier summers and warmer winters because of El Niños. Several decades ago, the pattern had stronger indications than today, and researchers could predict how it would affect weather with confidence. But external forces such as the Madden-Julian Oscillation can dominate the influence of an El Niño.
“All it takes is a significant Nor’easter or large cold outbreak to completely turn the normal seasonal attributes of El Niño/La Niña on its head,” Scott McKim, science manager at the Whiteface Mountain Field Station, Atmospheric Sciences Research Center in Wilmington said in an email.
The Adirondacks saw a particularly mild winter during the 2022-23 season. Although the Earth was in a cooling La Niña pattern, winter athletes noted a lack of snow and stable ice. It’s too soon to tell how this year’s El Niño will impact the season.
The current rainy start to this summer was not influenced by a La Niña or El Niño, McKim said, rather a longwave pattern that increased storms over the Great Lakes and Northeast.
Scientists have yet to reach a consensus on how climate change impacts El Niños and La Niñas, Dewitt said. Yet some researchers, including one at the University of Leeds, said the current El Niño cycle could push global warming past goalpost temperatures adopted in the 2015 Paris Agreement.
“Since the planet has already warmed by around 1.2°C relative to pre-industrial times and El Niño adds some extra heat to the atmosphere, it’s possible that Earth’s rising temperature will temporarily exceed the 1.5°C threshold of the Paris agreement some time after the peak of the El Niño in 2024, though it is too early to know how strong this next event will be,” states the Priestley International Centre for Climate.
The last El Niño caused record-breaking heat in the Adirondacks. December of 2016 was the warmest on record in the Adirondacks, according to NOAA. The average temperature in Saranac Lake, for example, was 34 degrees Fahrenheit, 15 degrees above normal for the month.
But the weather came with some unexpected benefits for wildlife enthusiasts. In 2016, birders watched for out-of-range and rare species as the Adirondacks experienced milder weather conditions. It’s not clear yet whether the next El Niño will offer the same unusual sightings, but Dewitt said the event will likely last until next spring.
One thing is for certain: It’s best to check weather forecasts close to planned events.
“For the most part, in the continental U.S., you need to be looking at that two-week to one-month forecast to inform anything that you’re doing,” Dewitt said.
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