Explanatory Story- El Niño

Don’t put that umbrella away just yet. Arizona is at an increased chance for a wetter-than-normal winter because of El Niño, said meteorologists with the National Weather Service in Phoenix.

With monsoon season officially over as of Sept. 30, El Niño has taking shape in the Pacific Ocean and all of the Southwest could possibly see an increase in precipitation, said Mark O’Malley, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

Marvin Percha, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service said, “It’s here now and it is going to be a strong one. The odds are in favor of a wetter winter.”

El Niño is the natural warming of Pacific Ocean water that affects weather patterns around the world. El Niño typically lasts seven to nine months and can occur every two to seven years, said Percha.

“This El Niño is among the strongest on record. Arizona should see an increase in precipitation. This weather pattern will influence weather here in the Valley causing an increased chance for storms and precipitation,” said O’Malley.

Percha said that El Niño is expected to peak in the coming months.

“El Niño should have a sharp peak in the next few months and tapper into the spring,” Percha said.

This peak is because of increased sea temperatures in the Pacific Ocean that cause changes in normal weather patterns. The sea temperatures are expected to return to normal in late spring or early summer when El Niño has completed its cycle, said Percha.

The last El Niño was in 2010. This year’s El Niño should be stronger than the 2010 El Niño, said O’Malley.

“The 2010 El Niño wasn’t as strong as a typical El Niño. In 2010, we saw only a slight increase in precipitation here in Arizona. It was basically a typical Arizona winter,” said O’Malley

During the 1997-1998 El Niño there was increased precipitation and flooding in Arizona, said O’Malley.


“This one is a stronger one similar to the 1997-1998 El Niño. We are looking at a wetter winter,” said O’Malley.

“The wetter-than-average weather will impact California and the lower half of the U.S. as far as precipitation,” said Percha.

The Arizona Department of Transportation is preparing the roadways this winter regardless of El Niño’s impact.

Steve Elliott, an Arizona Department of Transportation spokesman, said that public safety is the top priority for ADOT.

“Every year we are ready, not only during an El Niño year,” said Elliott.

O’Malley said Arizonans can expect more snow in Northern Arizona than in recent years. He also said that the desert has the potential for drought relief because of the amount of precipitation El Niño could bring to the area.

ADOT has a “Know Snow” campaign to prepare people for winter driving. The campaign stresses safety and preparation. “Know Snow” also gives drivers tips to stay safe. Such as, carrying an emergency preparedness kit in the car and notifying someone of your travel plans before you hit the road.

“We are ready. We want drivers to be ready as well,” said Elliott.

ADOT’s budget is between $4 million to $8 million depending on the severity of the winter season, said Elliott.

“We spend what it takes to keep the road clear and the public safe,” said Elliott.

As of last winter, ADOT had 214 snowplows throughout Arizona. This year, they added a tow plow to the fleet in Bellemont, Ariz.

“As of last year, we had 50 snowplows in Flagstaff, 41 in Globe, 31 in Prescott and even 3 in Phoenix,” said Elliott.

ADOT’s fleet is prepared for the potential of a harsher winter, Elliot said.

Both Meteorologists O’Malley and Percha agreed that this year’s El Niño is expected to be among the strongest on record. For the latest highway conditions call 5-1-1 or visit ADOT’s website at az511.gov for highway updates and real-time images giving Arizona drivers a glimpse into highway weather conditions.


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