December 21, 2023
Midland Meteorologist, Bruce Jones weighs in ahead of an El Niño winter.
El Niño and La Niña are two sides of the same coin.
In the eastern Pacific Ocean along the equator, a period of warmer than normal sea water is called El Niño, while the appearance of cooler sea water heralds a La Niña. The ocean sloshes back and forth from Australia to Peru, so the water warms for a few years, then cools, and the cycle repeats itself.
Amazingly, the difference in water temperatures off the South American coast can have a dramatic effect on America’s weather because it changes how our upper-level winds ebb and flow.
The winter of 2023-24 will be highlighted by a strong El Niño (warm ocean water), and that usually spells tornado trouble for Florida and other Gulf Coast states.
The El Niño of 1997-1998 was one of the strongest ever recorded and 2023-2024’s El Niño is looking much the same.
The picture below illustrates how El Niño adjusts and amplifies global weather patterns, with the upper-level “jet stream” winds being the most important tornado producer. Blowing across and through the tops of thunderstorms, these strong winds are part of the recipe for dangerous, rotating storms called “supercells”, a common source of tornadoes.
Photo courtesy: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Florida’s worst tornado disaster occurred around Orlando in the early hours of February 23, 1998.
A deadly brew stirred up when El Niño energized jet stream winds of 160 mph, combined with strong low-level winds and very moist surface air.
At 12:40am a powerful EF3 tornado touched down and tore through Kissimmee’s Ponderosa RV Park where many “snowbird” vacationers stayed. In seconds, 25 people were dead and many more injured.
Afterwards, some survivors said they either did not receive the tornado watches and warnings, underestimated the severity of the weather forecast, or did not know where they were located on a county map. Things like that can lead to tragedy.
Photo courtesy: National Weather Service
Because the 2023-2024 El Niño is of similar strength to the 1997-1998 pattern, everyone along the Gulf Coast, from Texas to Florida, needs to be prepared for the possibility of winter tornadoes.
Upper wind patterns from December through March will favor outbreaks of dangerously strong thunderstorms, with the risk of both damaging straight line winds and tornadoes.
Outbreaks of tornadoes, like the 7 twisters on the night of February 22-23, 1998 can wreak havoc in entire counties, leaving survivors without power for days during the coldest months of the year.
If you live in Florida, keep severe weather preparedness in mind. Talk with your family and create a plan of action.
During El Niño years even holidays like Christmas and New Year’s Day may have a severe weather risk. Never think “it can’t happen now” just because there are decorations on your house. In El Niño winters, it CAN happen.
Have multiple, redundant ways to get warnings, and when you get them, heed them. Early warning is your best protection.
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