El Niño forecast: Winter will be 'wetter than normal,' forecasters say

Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images) 

Now that it’s beginning to get colder, the big question on everyone’s mind is what kind of weather will we see this winter? This year may look a bit different than last year since we are transiting into an El Nino pattern. Which means the water temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific are gradually increasing and trending warmer than average.  So, here’s what you can expect for the 2018-2019 winter season.

1.    Temperatures will be pretty average for most of the winter
2.    Overall, just a wetter than average winter
3.    The precipitation types could be an even mix of rain, ice, or snow
4.    This setup also tends to bring average snowfall for a typical year

The best way to start a winter weather forecasts for our area is too look at an average year. Typically we see very little in the way of snow and ice across the Piedmont, but totals can go up significantly as you head northwest to the Mountains. Average yearly snowfall totals range from around 3-8 inches in the Piedmont to upwards of 24+ inches in the Mountains. 

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The other part of a winter forecast is our temperatures from December to February. With the extreme elevation change across the area, our temperatures will also be quite different from east to west.  

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For the winter months we usually have average high temperatures in the 50s for most places.

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However, depending on the location our average high temperatures could range from the 60s over the Sandhills to the 30s and 40s across the Mountains.

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Maps by NCSU

So how is our winter looking in comparison to a typical year?

Currently we are transitioning into an El Nino pattern and all indications point to this pacific off shore warming trend to continue through the upcoming year. 

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Maps by NOAA

El Nino is characterized by unusually warm ocean temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific off the South American coast. During these warm episodes of an El Nino year, you can expect the usual patterns we see over the Pacific Ocean to become disrupted. These changes in the atmospheric circulation and tropical precipitation can have a big impact on the upcoming weather events. In regions with abnormally cold water we tend to see suppressed cloudiness and rainfall, especially during the winter and spring month in the Northern Hemisphere. However, rainfall is typically enhanced over the warmer waters near Indonesia, Malaysia and northern Australia. However, do to the warmer waters expanding over much of the Pacific Ocean in an El Nino year the enhanced rainfall will also move eastward.

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How does this impact us? 

With this type of pattern, the southern United States often see wetter conditions and cooler temperatures through the winter months. The north usually ends up with a warmer and drier winter, which could ultimately lead to less snowfall across the northern states.

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For the upcoming winter, above normal precipitation is expected for most of the southern half of the US. The upper northwest and parts of the Great Lakes could see slightly below average precipitation this winter. All other locations are projected to have a normal winter season. Since we are looking at more precipitation this winter in the Carolinas, we could also end up with higher snow and ice totals.

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Temperatures this winter are expected to be above average for much of the US.  Most of the unusually warm weather will be across the western half of the country. All of the southeast and much of the eastern seaboard is expected to be right around normal for the upcoming winter. The Climate Prediction Center doesn’t project any location to be below average for the 2018-2019 season. %INLINE%

Let’s compare to past years….

In a typical winter season, our high temperatures average around 52.8° from December to February with the total precipitation averaging about 9.96”. When taking a look back at previous winters with an El Nino setup similar to the upcoming season, we can get a good idea of what may be in store for us this year.

The 2015-2016 winter season for Charlotte averaged a daytime high of 56.4° with 15.48” of precipitation. We had five snow events over the 3-month period with Charlotte picking up 3.3” of snow.  Most of the snow this winter fell in the month of January.

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Going a little farther back to the 1991-1992 winter season, data showed another slightly warmer and wetter year for the Charlotte area. Our average daytime high from December to February was 57.3° and precipitation totals ended up at 10.58”.  Snowfall accumulations were minor for our area with Charlotte only picking up a Trace of snow for the whole winter season.

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If history repeats itself, then we are in store for average temperatures this winter with higher precipitation totals. Snowfall amounts should be right around normal for the winter season.
One variable that has to be taken in to account is a random or unexpected storm that could come through at any time over the winter months. Why could this be an issue you ask? It could bring heavy rain, dump a significant amount of snow, allow a much colder air mass to settle into the region, or just change the pattern all together. Any of these situations could easily bust the winter weather forecast.
Stay tuned for what’s to come!!