Scientists predict forecasts by examining La Nina, El Nino weather patterns

Scientists predict forecasts by examining La Nina, El Nino weather patterns

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by Rick Lantz

Idaho's NewsChannel 7

Posted on February 14, 2011 at 9:08 AM

Updated Thursday, Jun 2 at 8:51 AM

BOISE -- Chances are, if you ask any longtime Idahoan, they would tell you winter these days doesn't compare the winters we used to see 30 years ago.

People used to shovel more, there was more snow on the sides of the roads, and winters in general, were wetter.

New research is showing they might be right.

Idaho's Chief Meteorologist Rick Lantz traveled to Seattle to speak with scientists who are on the leading edge of researching weather patterns like La Nina and El Nino, and how they effect Idaho.

Scientists have been able to tell us that this is a La Nina year -- very important to many industries in Idaho.

At some point, there may be a way to forecast the weather decades in the future, and those answers could be in the water.

At the Pacific Marine and Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, scientists are studying the ocean and its effect on weather, the snow pack, fire seasons, and fisheries.

"The ocean is like a freighter.  Once it starts in a direction, it's hard to stop," said Dr. Mike Mcphaden.  "Each one of those dots is a doughnut shaped float at the surface, that is anchored to the ocean floor with old railroad car wheels."

The buoys Mike referred to were put in place 30 years ago.  Mike Mcphaden and his team have been replacing them once every year, ever since.

Each one of them sends back oceanic and atmospheric data which helps scientists predict weather patterns in advance.

"This information, we can feed into forecast models so we can see El Nino coming six to nine months in advance.  La Nina as well," said Dr. Mike Mcphaden.

Both El Nino and La Nina are results of sea surface temperatures in the equator between Australia and Peru.

El Nino is associated with warm surface temperatures, creating a mild winter.

La Nina-- cool temperatures and a cold wet winter.

When the El Nino develops in the tropics, we have a pretty good shift in the odds for the kind of winter we'll expect and Idaho kind of sits in the middle of the bulls eye for where this effect has the most impact and reliability.

This winter has been a La Nina, one of the strongest we've seen in the past 50 years.

There is typically a La Nina or El Nino every three to seven years.

Nate Mantua has been studying the effects of the weather on ecosystems in the northwest.

"One of my particular interest is salmon fisheries," said Mantua, who is an atmospheric scientist.

From the high mountain streams in Idaho and their journey to the ocean, there are several factors helping or hurting salmon survival.

"It turns out that years we have a cold ocean and we have really good north winds that cause the upwelling of nutrients that fertilize the ocean in the spring and summer those tend to the years when salmon from Idaho have the highest survival rate that grow the fastest that come back in the biggest numbers," said Mantua.

Those years tend to follow La Nina winters, which means get your fishing pole ready for salmon season 2012.

"It's like skiers.  They know La Nina is good for the northwest for skiing generally it's really a good thing, El Nino not so good," said Mantua.

But being able to forecast a few weeks in advance is just the tip of the iceberg for this research.  Remember those buoys out in the pacific ocean?  Those were set up in the 1980s. 

Scientists are now working to put new ones in the northern pacific, where they have recently discovered a pacific decatal oscillation, a new theory that may lead to forecasting weather trends that could last decades rather than months. 

"We know that from the last century, the period from about the mid 40s to 1976 was characterized by having lots of cool, wet and snowy winters in the Pacific northwest," said Mantua.  "The two decades before that, and the two decades after that, were characterized by being warmer and dryer for most of those years."

The goal now is to get enough data from climatology or weather history, to make a forecast that extends years into the future.

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