Texas Tech University

El Niño’s Early Arrival

Doug Hensley

July 19, 2023

West Texas Rain

The weather influencer should translate into more precipitation for West Texas.

El Niño, the climatological phenomenon that along with its counterpart La Niña influences global weather patterns, has formed months earlier than usual, meaning its impacts could be more significant in some parts of the world as winter approaches.

However, the primary difference West Texans could notice is more precipitation as El Niño years typically generate more rain for the southern half of the country.

Karin Ardon-Dryer
Karin Ardon-Dryer

“For us, La Niña usually means it will be dry with more dust,” said Karin Ardon-Dryer, an assistant professor of atmospheric sciences in the Department of Geosciences at Texas Tech University. “El Niño means more rain, which is good for us, but there will be other impacts.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued an El Niño advisory last month. Researchers determine the presence of El Niño when average water temperatures in the eastern Pacific Ocean have increased by a certain amount over a three-month span.

El Niño is a temporary warming of the ocean waters. A three-year La Niña, which cooled those same Pacific waters, ended in March. Each weather pattern impacts different parts of the globe in different ways. Often, they offset each other. That is, some areas hit hard by the recent La Niña are now hoping for relief from El Niño.

The early arrival of El Niño means it could grow in intensity; current estimates suggest a 56% chance it will become strong and a 25% chance it could expand to supersized levels, which typically are reached only about once every 10 years. Recently, exceptionally powerful El Niños were recorded in 2014-16 and 1997-98.

Some 25 years ago, one of the strongest El Niños ever recorded triggered record rain in California as well as parts of Kenya and Somalia while bringing brutal drought to Indonesia. The El Niño in place from 2014-16 led to drought in Venezuela and Australia and flooding in England. In both cases, the El Niño events led to some of the planet's hottest years ever recorded.

Regardless of its size, Ardon-Dryer said El Niño's influence on the jet stream usually means a drier winter for the northern half of the country and the possibility of intensely cold winter storms similar to the one that struck Texas in February 2021, although that took place during a La Niña year. 

“El Niño can impact the jet stream,” she said. “It can impact weather systems as far as where they are and how they will move. It depends on the conditions, but there is a possibility some very cold weather could happen.”

The fact that El Niño is setting up earlier than usual could be a rarity rather than an indication that the pattern is permanently shifting. Ardon-Dryer said scientists need a wider time span before drawing any conclusions.

“Usually, El Niño would start much later,” she said, “and you would see it peak in December. But El Niño also means we are talking about hotter temperatures and seeing an increase in air and ocean temperatures, So this could be part of the climate change conversation. Is it an indication of a changing climate pattern?

“We've seen shifting seasons in biology where flowers are now blooming earlier, so this could be another impact on the climate, but time will tell. You can't say with one event. You have to look at multiple events over 20 to 30 years, then if you see El Niño coming earlier throughout that time, it's probably related to climate change.”

Extreme weather events are likely to happen with El Niño. Places that receive precipitation could see flooding while places that are dry may experience prolonged drought and wildfires. Other disruptions include beach erosion, coral reef destruction and the possibility of increased disease transmission because of weather-related impacts on fungi and bacteria.

“There are a lot of impacts, but usually not so much on us,” she said. “We will get the rain, and other parts of the country will be drier than usual. That could lead to wildfires in western Pacific states, and some of that smoke might come this way.

“Surprisingly enough, El Niño is considered to have a bigger impact than La Niña across the world, but for us here in Lubbock, it is not that bad.”