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EL NINO'S GIFT MAY BE MILD BUFFALO WINTER

An ill wind may blow Buffalo some good news.

With one of the strongest ocean warmings in history -- the infamous "El Nino" phenomenon -- poised to wreak havoc on world weather, Buffalo may be in for a dramatically milder winter with less snowfall than usual.

Studies just completed by local National Weather Service meteorologists show some surprisingly strong links between the Pacific Ocean's changes and winter weather here:

Buffalo snowfall averages about 2 feet less in major El Nino years than it normally does and almost 4 feet less than in years when the Pacific cools instead of warms.

The previous record El Nino of 1982-83 -- already eclipsed by this year's event -- brought Buffalo its least-snowy winter in 30 years.

All six of the strongest El Nino events since the mid-1950s brought warmer-than-usual winters here, and half of them brought significantly lower snowfalls.

The official 90-day outlook from the National Weather Service's climate center is cautious. Based on predictions of El Nino trends, it calls for only slightly lower precipitation and slightly higher temperatures for this region, through February.

"We still have to be careful, because there are so many variables," said meteorologist Stan Levine of the Buffalo office.

"If you really had to make a prediction," added Stephen F. McLaughlin, a weather service forecaster and Western New York Snow Spotters Network coordinator, "the odds are that it will be a milder winter than normal."

History is on the side of those who prefer open, relatively mild winters.

But, the forecasters caution, averages don't rule out extreme swings and serious storms. Skiers are still likely to enjoy a good season, and there's no reason to put off buying that new snowblower, if you need one.

"That's because we have the lake effect, which throws a monkey wrench into the whole thing," McLaughlin noted.

What the studies indicate is a tendency toward easier winters in the stronger El Nino years.

But one of the six strongest recent events since the 1950s produced normal snowfall, and the two earliest brought above-average snow despite the warmer temperatures.

If Lake Erie doesn't freeze over, the potential for strong lake effect storms lingers. That happened in 1987-88 and 1988-89, which McLaughlin described as "virtually snowless until February," when unusually late lake-effect storms hit.

Overall, though, the pattern for El Nino years "still shows up as definitely less snow."

A study by forecaster Bob Hamilton of El Nino years when the ocean's surface temperature is warmed more than 1 1/2 degrees showed that Buffalo averaged just 70.2 inches of snow those winters. The ocean temperature has already risen 4 degrees this year.

The long-term average snowfall here is 93.5 inches. In years when the Pacific cools -- an events called "La Nina" -- the study showed Buffalo averages 115.5 inches of snow.

McLaughlin tracked the strongest El Nino years of 1957-58, 1965-66, 1972-73, 1982-83, 1986-87 and 1991-92.

"Every one of the years was warmer than normal," he said. "The winter of '82-83 was really mild."

That year brought Buffalo an average winter temperature of 31.4 degrees and a snowfall of only 52.4 inches. The normal winter temperature average is 25.8 degrees.

"That's down as the strongest (El Nino) we've observed so far," McLaughlin said. "And it was also the least snow we've had in 30 years."

The Blizzard of '77, which followed a record 40 consecutive days below freezing, was largely a windstorm that occurred during a transition from La Nina to El Nino conditions. The most recent strong El Nino in 1991-92 brought a near-normal 92.8 inches of snow, but there was often bare ground between snowfalls, because the average temperature was a warm 28.7 degrees.

"When you're talking 3 to 4 degrees over a whole winter, that's a whole lot," McLaughlin said. "It's more like a Pittsburgh winter, than a Buffalo winter."

El Nino's strongest effects, Levine added, are felt on the West Coast -- where there's direct contact with the warmer ocean waters -- as well as in the North-Central Plains, which get much warmer, and the South, which gets much wetter.

El Nino also tends to feed hurricanes in the Pacific, where two have already brushed Baja California, and to suppress them in the Atlantic. There was only one storm that was powerful enough to reach "name" status in the Atlantic this September, normally the peak month for hurricanes.

What most people call "El Nino" actually is a combination of two related events -- the ocean surface temperature effect named for the Christ Child because it usually appears along the South American coast about the time of Christmas, and the Southern Oscillation, an atmospheric pressure see-saw with a direct impact on the weather thousands of miles away.

"That flip-flops according to El Nino, as well," Levine noted. "The normal trade winds are altered."

"Are we having more frequent El Ninos?" asked McLaughlin. "It looks like we are, although that's not something you see discussed very often."

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