El Nino is coming
Winter to be slightly warmer but snowier

by Ian Elliot
Northern News Services

NNSL (Sep 22/97) - The tropical weather pattern known as El Nino seems certain to bring the North a winter that is warmer and wetter than usual.

But don't trade in your snowshoes for sandals just yet -- the warm, moderating wind is expected to raise winter temperatures in the North only about one degree Celsius on average, and forecasters are predicting four millimetres more precipitation will accompany it.

Weather forecasters say El Nino, a Pacific Ocean current that affects climates around the world by pushing warm waters further north than usual and weakening the naturally occurring trade winds, may be the strongest it has ever been this winter.

Droughts in Australia, brush fires in the Philippines and disastrous wheat harvests in Australia are all being blamed on the enormous world weather pattern, which is already into its latest cycle.

Its effects will reach this far north, although it is much more noticeable in southerly regions, said Amir Shabbar, a climatologist with Environment Canada.

"The winter will be milder, about a degree warmer over the season, and the precipitation will be more than normal," he said.

The spring breakup may also happen somewhat earlier than usual as a result of the warmer temperatures, he predicted. Fall freeze-up will be unaffected because El Nino does not begin until November or December, he said.

And though the warm breezes associated with El Nino are at one of their strongest levels ever, no one, including Environment Canada forecasters, is quite sure why it seems to be peaking.

"We don't understand why it is so strong but it is going to be strong," Shabbar said.

Some scientists suspect global warming may be responsible for enhancing El Nino, but the evidence is too thin to draw conclusions.

The head of one of Canada's best-known weather prognosticators -- the Farmer's Almanac -- is less sure about the effects of the tropical breeze but concurs with the Environment Canada prediction of a slightly milder winter on average.

"We are predicting above-average temperatures for November and December, slightly above-average temperatures for January and below-average temperatures for February and March," publisher John Pierce said this week.

However, like the Environment Canada scientist, he said the one-degree figure is an average, not a prediction that each month will be warmer than its counterpart from last year.

"Look at it like this: if the winter starts out cold and snowy and finishes cold and snowy but it is mild in between, what are people going to remember about the winter? That it was cold and snowy.

"That's what is so misleading about statistics," said Pierce.

El Ninos may wander around the world for years after they originate. The effects of El Nino of 1993-94, for example, will brush the coast of Alaska this winter, and may do more to modify temperatures in shoreline communities than the current El Nino.

The most powerful El Nino on record, in 1982-83, caused billions of dollars worth of damage and is blamed for 2,000 deaths, according to a report in the British newspaper The Independent.