El Nino predicted to be strongest since 1997-98

El Nino predicted to be strongest since 1997-98

Past records suggest Kansas will see warm, wet winter if strong El Nino settles in in equatorial Pacific

What we don't know about what drives the weather, and the bigger picture called the climate, is volumes bigger than what we do know.

Nothing illustrates that better than the latest news about El Nino, the pattern of warming waters in the equatorial Pacific that have been shown to create changes of weather patterns around the world.

For Kansas, strong El Nino conditions are mostly a winter event, bring warmer and wetter than normal conditions across most of the state -- and most of the southern Great Plains for that matter. At least in the years that have provided clear enough patterns for data to be collected.

DROUGHT DISAPPEARANCE: The area of Kansas in drought has dropped dramatically with this summer's rains, leaving only a small area in moderate drought.

Scientists are now saying that the winter of 2015-2016 will be a strong El Nino, as strong or stronger than the previous record-strong event in 1997-98.

That could spell the end of the drought that has plagued the western and southwestern U.S. for the better part of a decade and bring relief especially to parched California. It could also mean worsening drought in the northwest including Oregon and Washington.

In the fall of 1997, when NOAA was fighting to establish the credibility of El Nino as a forecasting event, scientists encouraged California water managers to empty reservoirs in preparation for heavy precipitation events that would, without a place to capture and store water, create historic erosion and flooding.

Back then, there was a lot of argument about the advisability of taking action, especially considering the likely catastrophic consequences of being wrong -- sending precious water downstream with no guarantee it would be replaced.

As it turned out, science was sound. Southern California was inundated with wave after wave of storms through the winter and spring and those emptied reservoirs were overflowing  by early summer. And lakes and rivers downstream were full of much needed water.

This time around, hydrologists have history on their side in making forecasts.

It is however, a short history, relatively speaking. Weather on Planet Earth is millions of years old. Recorded weather data is decades old. Dozens of variables could create changes from the forecasts. People recommending actions based on their forecasts are predictably nervous. California doesn't have to discuss emptying reservoirs; they are already dry.

Rivers in the west, including the Arkansas River coming out of Colorado into Kansas, are showing flows for the first time in several years this year. If El Nino's effects are as predicted, high flows could be seen by early spring of 2016 -- something that hasn't happened since the last very strong El Nino of 1998.

Kansas Farmer will be taking a look at what this forecast might mean for water managers in Kansas in the coming year. Be sure to watch for your August Kansas Farmer magazine for more information.

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