El Nino and Alaska Winter Weather

By Jason Hess

In the past, El Nino has been a buzzword related to wild and stormy weather around the globe. More storms slamming into California, monster typhoons in the Pacific, droughts in portions of Africa and Asia, and floods in South America. What does all this mean for Alaska?

El Nino is the Spanish word for “Christ child” and was first used by Peruvian fisherman in the late 1800's to describe the warming of the waters off the coast of Peru around Christmas that spelled disaster for the fishing industry there. Scientists now know this phenomenon which occurs every three to five years, actually extends across the entire equatorial Pacific at its peak. Early in 1997 the waters in the equatorial Pacific began to warm and by early summer scientists noted that they were warming faster than usual. That is why this El Nino is forecast to be the strongest one of the century.

Temperatures across Alaska are usually above normal during El Nino winters. This is due to abnormal southerly flow setting up more frequently across the state during the coldest winter months. Cold weather out-breaks should be fewer and shorter in duration and a mid winter thaw in January or February is expected. Precipitation should be above normal across the Gulf of Alaska coastal areas, and below normal north and west of the Alaska Range. Southcentral Alaska should experience above normal precipitation before Christmas and below normal precipitation thereafter. Snowfall totals will vary greatly due to terrain effects, but expect above normal totals in higher elevations of the coastal ranges and the eastern slopes of the Alaska Range.

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