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  • El Niño vs The Arctic Oscillation: Opposing Weather Systems Bring Extreme Weather

    In the U.S., this year’s winter weather has been like a boxing match, with the southern El Niño sparring with the northern Arctic Oscillation and North Atlantic Oscillation for temperature and precipitation supremacy.

    May the best oscillation win?

    El Niño is a once-every-several-years warming of the eastern Pacific. A major El Niño event, like the one we’re experiencing now, commonly brings buckets of precipitation to the southwest, buckets of precipitation and colder weather to the southeast, and slightly warmer, drier weather to the northern Rockies and Midwest.

    In December and into early January, El Niño had commanded the match. Temperatures in the northeast reached the 60s and even 70s, smashing record highs. At the same time, tornadoes in the southeastern U.S. – a common El Niño phenomenon – killed two dozen people in four days. The severe storms continued into January in the southeast, as a tornado touched down in Florida on January 9.

    Shirtless - USA Today - Arctic Oscillation And then there was this guy... "What Arctic Oscillation?" - via USA Today

    Here’s where the match got interesting, though. The same storm system that brought the Florida tornado also brought extreme cold temperatures and blasting wind to the Midwest. A January 10 football playoff game in Minnesota was the third-coldest NFL game ever played, with a kickoff temperature of -6 degrees F. The storm left more than 120,000 people without power across several states.

    This extreme cold is more characteristic of a polar vortex, caused by the North Atlantic Oscillation and Arctic Oscillation. And it’ll probably continue through January.

    Arctic Oscillation El Niño is causing massive flooding in California, but won't do much in drought relief - via CBS News

    However, in California, El Niño is still the big hitter. The state is in a brief pause in a series of storms that could last for a few weeks. The storms are bringing lots of rain – which, alas, creates problems for awards ceremonies’ red carpet preliminaries – and causing floods in spots.

    Meteorologists expect even this El Niño won’t make much of a dent on the multi-year California drought. For starters, rainwater doesn’t stay put. Once the ground is saturated, water flows away, often in storm drains to the Pacific. In Orange County, in southern California, about half that water gets captured for later use. The rest ends up in the ocean.

    Rain Barrel - Arctic OscillationMany agencies in southern California are trying to collect more of that rainwater. On January 6, the State Water Resources Control Board approved a plan to spend $200 million for projects to capture more rain.

    In California and many other states, homeowners can capture rain for their own use. A 1,000-square-foot roof can collect 600 gallons from one inch of rain, according to the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension.

    It’s not that hard to make a small rain capture system; WikiHow has directions. Basically, it requires making a platform for a rain barrel (or barrels), taking a barrel and adding a spigot and overflow valve, attaching it to a rain gutter’s downspout and putting a filter in the downspout to catch larger stuff that would clog it. To use the rainwater for landscaping or gardening, set up a drip irrigation system and run a hose out to it from the barrel.

    Professional installers can also make a larger rain capture system.

    A few caveats. First, this system is gravity-powered, so if you want to water higher than your collection location, you’ll need a pump. Second, this water’s not suitable for drinking. It needs boiling and filtering to become potable. Third, not all states and municipalities allow rainwater collection, and some allow it only on a limited basis. This is especially true in the west, where water rights are paramount.



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  • A Dozen Disasters to Remember 2015: A Year in Review

    The hottest year on record, 2015, showed the need to prepare for a wide variety of disasters. Here are a dozen, and one way to prepare for each.


    In January, a measles outbreak that started at Disneyland over the winter break spread to 14 states, infecting 117 people, according to USA Today.

    It started a national discussion about whether or not to vaccinate. It also served as a reminder: An epidemic can start anywhere and spread everywhere.

    How to prepare: Make sure to keep medicine on hand, says ready.gov. This includes nonprescription drugs like pain relievers, stomach settlers and cold medicines, as well as fluids with electrolytes and vitamins. If possible get enough prescription medication to ensure a continuous supply.


    8 Feet of Snow - via The Weather NetworkJanuary was almost over when an historic snowstorm clobbered the northeast. The storm, which began January 26, brought more than 30 inches of snow to at least 54 locations from Long Island, N.Y., to Maine, according to weather.com. It also brought blizzards and flooding. And it was only the beginning.

    Through mid-March, storm after storm after storm slammed New England. Boston basically shut down when too much snow clogged transportation arteries. The city eventually recorded a record 110.6 inches of snow for the season. One organization estimated Massachusetts alone lost $1 billion in wages and profits, and the school year stretched until the end of June.

    With the snow came near-record cold. At least six cities had their coldest February recorded. Hundreds of daily temperature records also fell. The cold was fatal for 28 people in seven states, according to NOAA's storm data reported in weather.com.

    How to prepare: Get snow removal equipment, says ready.gov. Get products to melt ice on walkways, sand and snow removal equipment. Andrew Thimmig, who lived in a suburb of Boston during the winter, said get more than one snow shovel – because if the snow’s heavy enough, one will break.


    In March, NOAA climatologists announced El Niño’s arrival. This recurring climate phenomenon, characterized by warmer-than-normal water off the equatorial coast of South America, strengthened by December into one of the three strongest on record.

    El Niño can change weather patterns all over the world. In the United States, it often brings especially rainy weather to the southwest and southeast, and warmer weather to the northern plains and northeast.

    How to prepare: Follow the forecasts. If you live in a state like California that tends to see flooding during an El Niño year, consider flood insurance.


    Kathmandu Earthquake 01 - ABCOn April 25, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal. The quake and its aftershocks damaged or destroyed almost 900,000 buildings in the capital of Kathmandu and the surrounding regions, according to one report. It also triggered an avalanche on Mt. Everest that killed 19 people. At least 2,100 people died.

    How to prepare: Look around your home. Are mirrors, pictures and heavy furniture secured to the wall? If not, look for kits to do so. Home furnishings store IKEA provides free mounting kits for its larger furniture.


    May brought heavy flooding to the plains and southeast. DeWitt, Neb., was evacuated and most of it flooded in a May 6-7 storm. A storm that brought massive flash floods over the Memorial Day weekend killed at least 23 people in three states. In total, at least 40 people died.

    How to prepare: Have a disaster kit ready to grab and go. Emergency Essentials sells several or build your own. Instructions for one are at ready.gov.


    The California drought was big news over the summer, after an April 1 snow survey found bare ground in the Sierra Nevada mountain range for the first time. Drought and heat also dominated the discussion in the northwest, which saw June and July temperatures more appropriate for Death Valley, Calif. On July 9, three towns in Washington state tied Death Valley’s 104-degree high, according to weather.com Ten days later, another Washington town hit 107 degrees. At least four deaths in Oregon were attributed to the heat.

    How to prepare: Know first aid. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control site has this list of symptoms for heat-related illnesses and directions for treating them.


    In July, the remnant of Hurricane Dolores in the Pacific brought “super historic” rainfall to southern California, according to weather.com. Interstate 10 closed when a bridge collapsed near Desert Center, Calif., and the San Diego Padres saw their first home rainout since 2006.

    How to prepare: Be ready when you travel. Keep your car’s gas tank at least half full in case you get stopped on the road or have to make a detour.


    Firefighter - ABC News via ABC News

    July and August saw more than 70 major wildfires in the (mostly) parched west, according to ABC News. The Valley Fire in Northern California burned more than 76,000 acres and destroyed 1,281 homes, according to weather.com. Six people died from fires in California and three more in Washington.

    How to prepare: Have vital information ready to go. A woman who saw the Wenatchee Fire in Washington said some people had just five minutes to evacuate. FEMA provides an Emergency Financial First Aid Kit to help identify records to keep safe. It’s available here.


    Blood Moon - Washington Post Blood Moon - via Washington Post

    It wasn’t a disaster, but it’s been considered a harbinger of one. On September 27, a supermoon eclipse briefly turned the moon red for much of the western hemisphere. The next time we’ll see such a phenomenon is 2033.

    How to prepare: Reminders to prepare occur daily, whenever there’s another natural disaster story in the news. Just start preparing. Pick up one thing you need and slowly build up your emergency prep. If you already have an emergency kit, take a half hour to see if it’s up to date. It doesn’t take much time or money if you prepare in small bits.


    Hurricane Patricia surprised everyone when it exploded from a tropical storm to a Category 5 hurricane October 22-23, according to weather.com. Equally surprising was its collapse shortly after landfall Mexico. No one died in the hurricane itself. However, its soggy aftermath added more rainfall to record flooding in the southeastern U.S. An October 10 storm had poured up to 15 inches on parts of South Carolina in 24 hours, causing widespread flooding and 19 deaths. Up to 160,000 homes may have been damaged.

    How to prepare: Know where to go in case you must evacuate. Know where local emergency shelters will be and have primary and alternate routes, suggests ready.gov. Never drive on a flooded road.


    A windstorm on November 17 killed three people and left more than a million without power in the Pacific Northwest. Spokane International Airport recorded record wind gusts of 71 miles per hour. The wind toppled trees and power poles and damaged buildings. Power was not entirely restored for 10 days.

    How to prepare: Keep electronic equipment charged. Emergency Essentials sells emergency chargers.


    This week, a winter storm, appropriately named Goliath by weather.com, brought 10 foot snowdrifts to New Mexico, tornadoes to Texas and massive flooding through the central and eastern U.S. So far, 43 people have died.

    How to prepare: Natural disasters can cause damage over a large area. Ready.gov recommends having emergency contact information for someone in another state in case of widespread damage in your area. Make sure family members know the out-of-state contact person’s information.


    And these were just the big headliners of the year. Of course, many things can transpire throughout the year. If we’ve learned anything from 2015, it’s that the unexpected can and most certainly will happen. We can’t predict everything, but we sure can be prepared for it!

    Have a safe, prepared 2016!


    That's our year in review! How did 2015 effect you?



  • El Niño Nationally: From the Pacific Northwest to the Deep South

    Anyone in the northeastern U.S. who’s “dreaming of a white Christmas” has a disappointing awakening coming. High temperatures 10 to 30 degrees above normal in the entire eastern half of the country could allow rain, but no snow. This pattern’s similar to what climate scientists predicted for this year in the wake of possibly the strongest El Niño event recorded.

    Sea Surface Temperature - El Niño Nationally Sea surface temperature - via NOAA

    Trade winds usually pile warm surface water on the western side of the Pacific, off the coast of Indonesia. During an El Niño year, trade winds fail and that warm water sloshes back to the west coast of South America. Right now, the water there is more than two degrees warmer than average. The warmer water and atmosphere during an El Niño typically can lead to major changes in weather patterns in the U.S. and across the world, according to the National Weather Service.

    El Niño patterns are usually strongest from December to March. Let’s look at what El Niño could mean for some other parts of the U.S. We considered California on December 3.


    Pacific Northwest

    National Weather Service maps give a high probability that the Pacific Northwest will be normal than usual and a chance that it will be drier than usual.

    This has worried northwestern water managers who in April measured record-low snow levels in parts of the Cascade Mountains. It also worried emergency managers, who saw more than a million acres of forest burn during the spring and summer.

    So far, they needn’t have worried. The area has been hammered by one major storm after another. Floods have engulfed the Oregon and Washington coasts. The Mt. Baker, Wash. ski area has 190 inches of snow. Last year at this time it had six inches. One atmospheric scientist called it a “La Niña type phenomenon.”

    That doesn’t mean things can’t change. The Pacific Northwest usually dries out in the latter part of the winter.



    The Gulf Coast and southeastern U.S. have historically been colder and wetter during strong El Niño years.

    So far, the southeast has seen warmer-than-normal temperatures but lots of rain and flooding. Texas had its fifth wettest October recorded. As of mid-November, Atlanta had more than a foot above average in rainfall for the year.

    Later winter could include ice storms in the Deep South.

    NOAA - El Niño Nationally via NOAA

    Ice storms can have nasty results. One that struck Tennessee at the end of February brought down trees and power lines all over areas east of Nashville. At the height of the storm, the whole of Fentress County and part of Cumberland County – 35,000 people – were without power, according to a NOAA report. Some didn’t get it back until March. Cumberland County Emergency Management called it the “worst natural disaster in the history of Cumberland County.”

    Strong El Niño events tend to reduce the number of Atlantic hurricanes. However, severe thunderstorms and tornadoes can become more common in central and southern Florida. On February 22, 1998, during the strongest El Niño year recorded, seven tornadoes struck central Florida. Forty-two people were killed.

    So far, the south’s weather has been unusually warm. Forecast high temperatures for the week of Christmas are between 10 and 20 degrees higher than normal.



    After January and February brought record-breaking snow and cold temperatures to the northeast, people there may find a white Christmas kind of anathema. That’s good, because December is shaping up to be the warmest in memory. Buffalo, N.Y. broke a 116-year record for the latest date with no snow on the ground.

    The rest of the winter season will likely be warmer than normal too. However, that doesn’t mean warm. A temperature a few degrees warmer than normal means ice storms rather than snow storms. One of the worst ice storms in history took place in the northeast U.S. and Canada January 5-8, 1998, during the last strong El Niño. Forty-four people were killed, more than 500,000 people lost power and damage totaled $4.4 billion in the U.S. and Canada.

    All these forecasts are maybes. Yes, this year U.S. weather seems to be following a classic strong El Niño pattern. But even strong El Niño patterns have variations. One climate blogger compared it to a bartender who occasionally messes up a drink order.

    “Sometimes El Niño is the bartender who doesn’t bring you what you ordered,” he said.

    So if the threat of abnormal El Niño weather spurs you to prepare, great. Ready.gov has information about El Niño preparation. The National Weather Service and weather.com have El Niño information. Check it out, then plan for your area. And be ready for something else.


    There's your El Niño national outlook. How is El Niño treating you in your neck of the woods?


    Winter_Storm_Blog_Image - El Niño Nationally

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