El Niño effects may largely bypass Idaho

Typical impacts caused by El Niño across the United States and Canada.
Typical impacts caused by El Niño across the United States and Canada. Provided by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Water temperatures at a key observation point for El Niño in the Pacific Ocean registered the warmest levels ever for a single week earlier this month, suggesting the weather phenomenon may reach record heights over the next few months.

The Climate Prediction Center at the National Weather Service predicts a higher chance for a wet winter for almost all of California and across the southern United States.

That isn’t likely, however, to happen in Idaho.

“The tendency is for winter seasons (during El Niño) to be drier than normal and warmer than normal,” said Tim Barker, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Boise. “Those tendencies tend to be a little stronger the farther north you go. The Panhandle and all tend to be more dry than the southern part of the state.”

That’s because the heaviest storms heading east from the Pacific Ocean tend to go other places during El Niño years, Barker said.

“The typical pattern in an El Niño pattern is that storms approaching the West Coast tend to split around the West Coast and go up, way up, into British Columbia or far south into Southern California and the southern tier states. It leaves Idaho in the middle of storms splitting around us.”

The greatest impacts from El Niño in the United States occur between December and March. In other parts of the world, they take place earlier.

Dry conditions related to the current El Niño have contributed to the largest number of forest fires reported in Indonesia since 1997, according to Emily Becker, a research scientist who monitors El Niño effects for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The warm water near the equator in the Pacific Ocean has placed additional stress on sea life. Coral reef bleaching — where corals expel food-producing algae — is expected to impact 38 percent of the world’s coral reefs, including nearly all of those in U.S. waters.

When corals are weakened and at risk of starvation or disease, other organisms, such as turf algae, seize the opportunity to take over and dominate the reef ecosystem, according to the NOAA.

Worldwide coral bleaching has taken place only twice before, in 1998 and 2010.

Brad Wilson, the general manager at Bogus Basin Mountain Recreation Area north of Boise, said his team would welcome added snow this year, but he’s not certain that will happen.

“Historically over the last five strong El Niños, Bogus has done well and has seen above-average snowfall,” Wilson said. “Of course, there are no guarantees when dealing with the weather.”

And Idaho weather patterns will depend on other factors as well.

The Pacific Decadal Oscillation, a pool of warm water that stretches from Alaska down to Mexico, can divert the jet stream so that storms miss Idaho.

With waters off the coast of the Pacific unusually warm, Idaho and the Northern Rockies may develop drought conditions, according to the NOAA.

Russell Qualls, a climatologist and professor at the University of Idaho, said the effects of an El Niño pattern are not significant enough in Idaho that he would suggest making major decisions because of it.

“If I was a highway manager, I wouldn’t say we’re not going to order any sand or salt this year because we’re not expecting any problems,” Qualls said.

John Sowell: 208-377-6423, @IDS_Sowell