A year ago around this time the Northeastern United States was facing an onslaught of winter weather that ended up being one for the books. In November of 2014 snowfall totaling 5–7 feet buried the suburbs of Buffalo, NY. By the end of February 2015 Boston had seen a total of nearly 109 inches of snow, breaking records and memorializing the winter of 2014-15 in the minds of all who lived through it.
Contrast that to this recent holiday season when New Englanders were able to enjoy the holiday by walking on the beach or playing a round of golf. Most of the Eastern and Central United States experienced their warmest December on record as temps hit the 70s in many places. Across the nation, freakish weather recently wreaked destruction and death. Flooding caused by over ten inches of rain beginning Christmas Day killed 25 people in Missouri and Illinois – a time of year when that region would normally be recording inches of snow and struggling with the hazards of ice. Christmas week proved to be further deadly when tornadoes ripped through Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas killing more than 40 people.
Blame it on El Niño
As meteorologists accurately predicted, the strange weather we’re presently experiencing is related to a super El Niño. This weather phenomenon occurs when trade winds that blow across a large part of the Pacific Ocean die down, causing the surface waters in the region to warm up. A feedback cycle develops that leads to even greater warming, and as the El Niño expands northward, the flow of the jet stream that carries storms across the Pacific from the tropics to the U.S. is altered. Given the size of the Pacific Ocean, which covers one third of the globe, weather patterns around the world are affected – especially during the winter months.
The current El Niño could end up being one of the strongest in 50 years, according to Bill Patzert, a climate researcher with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “The intensity of this El Niño is greater at this point than anything I have seen in my career.”
Thanks in large part to this super El Niño, we’re waiting for confirmation that 2015 will be the world’s warmest year on record. According to the World Meteorological Organization, the Earth’s average temperature for 2015 is expected to be 0.73°C above the 14.0°C (~57.2°F) average temperature recorded between 1961 and 1990. While an increase of less than one degree may not seem significant, consider the amount of energy needed to warm the entire atmosphere of a planet!
Kudos to meteorologists for their accuracy in forecasting this El Niño as early as the spring of 2014 when they first began to monitor changes in the ocean temperature of the Eastern Pacific. The science of weather is tricky and very vulnerable to criticism, for weather is something we all care about. It is nearly always an easily broached and popular topic of conversation, whether it be the heat, the cold, the rain, the snow, or the storms. Sometimes we talk about the weather simply because it is so dismal or so sublime it impacts our mood, energy level and plans for the day. Weather affects how we dress, where we travel, and even if we travel. There’s no denying that weather has the power to fascinate us, thrill us, annoy us, amuse us, humble us, and scare us.
Tips to help you stay safe
In the interest of staying safe from the powerful threat of certain weather conditions, it is worth sorting out a few common confusions that continue to persist. For example, the difference between a storm watch and warning – if asked, could you explain this? Here’s an official definition of the difference for those who still struggle with this important distinction: A severe thunderstorm or tornado watch means that atmospheric conditions are favorable for severe storm development. A severe thunderstorm or tornado warning means that a severe storm is imminent; it is occurring or about to occur so you should seek shelter.
And what are the safest and most dangerous places to be when a tornado is approaching? One of the biggest tornado myths according to Weather Underground, is the belief that if you’re on the road in your car the safest place to take cover is under an overpass. Yet, that is completely false as the tornado’s winds can potentially interact with the overpass structure to create an even more dangerous situation. The National Weather Service recommends that that if you don’t have time to drive away from the tornado then you should get out of your vehicle and head to the lowest floor of a nearby building or storm shelter. When no building is available for shelter look for the lowest area possible such as a ditch and hunker down with your head covered for protection.
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