El Niño Winter Weather
It's true, we are currently in and have been under an El Niño weather advisory since May, according to the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA). However, Texas did not fully benefit from typical El Niño conditions of cooler temps and wetter conditions because the Pacific jet stream remained too far north to make a difference. And normally, according to BRA Water Services staff, El Niño has little effect on Texas summers, tending to hit more in the winter months.
Texas just experienced some of the hottest temperatures it has ever seen in the summer of 2023. According to John Nielsen-Gammon, director of the Southern Regional Climate Center at Texas A&M University, "the summer of 2023 was the second hottest on record, ranking behind 2011 and ahead of 2022."
Central Texas was hit with a double threat this summer: record-breaking high heat and little rainfall. The area saw temperatures over 100 degrees in July and August, causing increased evaporation of local water supply reservoirs and an increased wildfire risk. Lakes Belton, Stillhouse, Georgetown and Proctor have seen their lake levels decrease significantly, with Lake Stillhouse being at its lowest since it was impounded in the late 60s.
The high temperatures created a severely dry surface, causing high wildfire counts throughout the state. According to Texas A&M Forest Service, there have been 1,148 wildfires this year that burned over 129,133 acres. While Texas is currently in Level 2 Wildland Fire Preparedness, which states some elevated fire danger is observed, there was a point this summer when Texas reached Level 4. A Wildland Fire Preparedness Level 4 indicates a very high volume of wildfires, including large fires that are resistant to control.
However, the weather may finally be taking a turn. "Texas conditions are Texas conditions," Nielsen Gammon said. "El Niño is something that happens in and over the tropical Pacific Ocean. They can be affected somewhat by El Niño. Our temperatures and rainfall are not affected hardly at all during the summertime. A more significant influence kicks in around the middle of fall and lasts until early spring, with El Niño making it more likely that Texas will have a wetter than normal winter."
NOAA is forecasting strong El Niño conditions during the winter months and that El Niño conditions will persist through winter into March of 2024.
El Nino conditions in Texas show the "Tropic Pacific warming up quite nicely," according to Nielsen-Gammon. "Presently, temperatures along the equator are about 3°F warmer than normal, which is on the borderline between a moderate El Niño and a strong El Niño. Temperature anomalies are predicted to plateau this fall and not start dropping back toward normal until early next year."
El Niño is the warming phase of the Southern Oscillation (ENSO) climate pattern, often bringing wet weather and even the potential for flooding to some areas. La Niña, on the other hand, is the cool phase of the El Niño ENSO climate pattern that usually brings drought conditions to the southern United States.
While there is no guarantee that El Niño will bring 100% drought recovery, Nielsen-Gammon states, "we can bet on an improvement in drought conditions this winter. Probably not enough rain to completely end the drought, but certainly things ought to improve. Along the middle Brazos River, though, from Waco to Possum Kingdom, drought conditions have been present for a couple of years already, so recovery will take longer there than in places farther downstream where drought only kicked in this summer."
"It's way too early to know for sure," Nielsen-Gammon continues, "but so far, according to the computer models, this is going to be a one-year El Niño. By next summer, it will probably be gone."
Recent rain events covered almost the entire state, bringing some measurable precipitation, with some areas of the lower basin receiving 6-8 inches of rain. While the much-needed rain brought relief to many, the severity of the drought will require much more rain for longer periods to make a dent in drought conditions and for lake levels to increase.
Water Data for Texas shows that, in total, water supply reservoirs are 65.9% full. That data can be checked in real-time here. It's evident that reservoirs are doing what they are designed to do: store water in wet times so that it's available in dry times.
The winter months not only bring cooler temperatures but also bring the hope for more rain events. If El Niño patterns hold, winter in Texas should be a wet one, one that lasts well into 2024.