El Nino Could Bring Brown Christmas

FILE PHOTO | THE SPECTRUM Last January, Fargo broke a record with no snowfalls greater than 1 inch between Dec. 1 and Jan. 27. The date’s previous record was set in winter 1943-44.
FILE PHOTO | THE SPECTRUM
Last January, Fargo broke a record with no snowfalls greater than 1 inch between Dec. 1 and Jan. 27. The date’s previous record was set in winter 1943-44.

While another brown Christmas is possible this year, students shouldn’t get their hopes up for too warm of a winter.

Daryl Ritchison, assistant state climatologist, said that “a quite strong El Nino in progress” is one of many influences that could produce a warmer, dryer winter. Though Fargo’s average winter temperature is 13 degrees, a warmer winter may only mean a 5- or 6-degree increase, producing a historically warm winter.

That leaves the average at a 19 degree high.

“If we finish the winter at 14 and a half or 15 degrees … that still fits the mantra of that. It would still be above average,” Ritchison said, adding that El Nino, or the warming of the Pacific ocean waters, will not bring consistent 40-degree days, and Fargo will likely still see temperatures well below zero in winter 2015-16.

A warmer winter, even at 5 degrees above average, would save heating costs, Ritchison said, even going from 14 to 19 degrees in three months.

The winter season is measured from Dec. 1 to the last day of February, or Feb. 29 this year.

January, February and December are the three coldest months, respectively.

Ritchison pointed to the winter of 2009-10 as one example of an inaccurate climate prediction for the Fargo region.

Forecasts of a warm and dry winter were met with snow, extreme cold and the second of three consecutive floods that inundated the Red River Valley.

“The way that El Nino was situated that year historically does bring us cold winters, so it’s where it sets up, where the waters are the warmest,” Ritchison said, “but this year where everything sets up, I would jump on everyone else’s bandwagon and say, ‘Yes, the odds favor it.'”

El Nino is one of many factors that can influence winter weather. Ritchison said the weather phenomenon is often mistaken as a direct cause of weather rather than a contributing influence.

“You will hear this winter, if things go according to plan, ‘An El Nino storm struck California with flooding.’ Well, no, El Nino doesn’t cause the storm. El Nino’s just a warming of the Pacific,” he said.

Ritchison also said most people compare a current winter to the previous year in terms of temperature and precipitation, as their perception of winter is drawn back to the most recent one, rather than two years ago, for example.

While Fargo averages approximately 40 inches of snow annually, that evens out to mere inches of liquid precipitation due to snow’s consistency, Ritchison said.

However, it doesn’t take much to produce an inch of snow, he added, though a dry Christmas is “a real possibility.”

Fargo’s forthcoming winter, meanwhile, could still bring low temperatures and plenty of snow despite El Nino’s effect.

The city broke a weather record in January with no snowfalls greater than 1 inch until after Jan. 27, a record set in winter 1943-44.

“There are other atmospheric effects in play always,” Ritchison said. “You can’t blame one thing (for) the world’s weather because the world’s weather is far more complex.”

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