El Niño has been a trending topic of discussion ever since Bill Patzert, a climatologist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, said "This definitely has the potential of being the Godzilla El Niño."
Comparisons to fictitious monsters aside, El Niño will, by all accounts, have a considerable impact on winter weather in Arizona this year. According to the National Weather Service (NWS), temperature and precipitation impacts associated with El Niño are expected to remain minimal in the early fall and increase in late fall and winter. The latest forecast from the NWS Climate Prediction Center in College Park, Md., says there's "an approximately 95 percent change that El Niño will continue through the Northern Hemisphere winter 2015-2016, and gradually weaken through spring 2016." While impacts are anticipated, they are not certain to occur. Forecasters expected a strong El Niño effect last winter that never materialized.
READ the latest El Niño forecast (source: NWS)
Just because El Niño was a no-show last winter, it doesn't mean its impact won't be felt this winter. According to the NWS in Flagstaff, past winters during strong El Niño have shown a tendency to be wetter than normal in Northern Arizona. Window Rock on the Navajo Nation averages 21 inches of snow during strong El Niño winter seasons; it averages 6 inches during "normal" winter. The average snowfall in Alpine during strong El Niño winters is 62 inches compared to 41 inches in most years.
El Niño is an ocean-atmospheric phenomenon marked by warmer-than-average sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean near the Equator. This phenomenon occurs about every two to seven years and last about 9 to 12 months; although, some prolonged events can last years. The presence of El Niño can influence global weather, climate, ocean conditions, and marine fisheries.
A strong El Niño means above-average precipitation for Arizona; particularly, in the winter months of December, January, February and into March. The Climate Prediction Center latest models "predict a peak [of El Niño] in late fall/early winter," and temperature and precipitation impacts to increase into late fall and winter. Although a prediction of a strong El Niño is by no means a guarantee, all signs point to a wet winter in Arizona.
Arizona last experienced a strong El Niño in the winter of 2009 and 2010. The most damaging storm that year happened January 20 to 23, and resulted in numerous search and rescues, widespread flooding, localized evacuations, power outages and extensive damage to public infrastructure.
READ about the January 2010 winter storm in the Arizona Republic
Over three days, between 40 and 60 inches of snow fell across the White Mountains. The town of Pine was blanketed under at least 25 inches of snow. In communities at lower elevations it rained seemingly relentlessly. In Black Canyon City in Yavapai County, 29 homes were destroyed or damaged when the Agua Fria River overran its banks. Flooding in Gila County isolated 826 people living in the Tonto Creek Basin when it turned the major road in and out of the area impassable.
Then Gov. Jan Brewer declared a state of emergency which formally activated the State Emergency Operations Center at the Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs, and authorized The Adjutant General to mobilize the Arizona National Guard to assist in the protection of life and property. Eventually eight Arizona counties (Apache, Coconino, Gila, Greenlee, La Paz, Mohave, Navajo and Yavapai) and six tribes (Gila River Indian Community, Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, San Carlos Apache, Tohono O'odham Nation and the White Mountain Apache Tribe) would receive federal aid for impacts to public infrastructure.
Emergency preparedness is as much about having confidence in your ability to prepare as it is about making preparations. Some people consider themselves too busy with work, friends and family to prepare. But basic emergency preparedness is easily achievable, instantly actionable and applicable in an El Niño winter. Winter IS coming, but you've got a head start.
Prepare for the possibility of heavy snow, cold and power outages:
Prepare for the possibility of heavy rain, flooding and the need to evacuate: