Where’s that Godzilla El Niño that was supposed to make Austin wetter than normal?

What the heck happened to the Godzilla El Niño?

That is a question a lot of Central Texans have been asking the National Weather Service, and one posed earlier this week by the Texas Standard. After all, we’re still experiencing an unusually strong El Niño – a cyclical weather pattern in the Pacific characterized by a warming of surface temperatures – and that pattern helped to produce an unusually cool and damp fall/early winter here, as El Niños tend to do. But come 2016 the skies dried up and the weather went through periods of unseasonable warmth. Earlier this week we even hit particularly dangerous wildfire conditions.

So what gives? Is this really what a wetter-than-normal winter should look like?:

rbb-weather-5
AMERICAN-STATESMAN file photo

It could be that the Godzilla El Niño just got tired and needed to catch its breath, as the Texas Standard interview suggested, particularly with May and June typically being rainy months. But Paul Yura, the second-in-command of the National Weather Service office that serves Central Texas, said there is another possible answer. It involves making a distinction between normal El Niños, which crop up every few years, and particularly strong ones, which are rare.

The normal ones tend to bring higher-than-typical rainfall. The really strong ones actually don’t. It’s not clear exactly why. It’s also a distinction that tends not to get raised a lot. There have been only a handful of the really powerful El Niños, which means using them to predict how the weather of future will be is little dicey. (It’s a “small sample size,” in research parlance, a situation that tends to give scientists the heebie-jeebies.)

Still, in light of the (admittedly small) amount of info yielded by previous Godzilla-scale El Niños, today’s weather might not be that strange, Yura said. Perhaps the wet weather of the fall was the anomaly.

Larry Hopper, another forecaster at the Weather Service office, added another possible explanation about why what we’re seeing now might not be that weird. He noted that Central Texas was so far ahead of its typical rainfall totals last year – the second-wettest on record in Austin – that a dry stretch could simply be returning to the totals a typical El Niño yields, totals that are still above normal. Rain does not typically fall in a steady pitter-patter in Central Texas, but tends to come in cycles; an unusually wet period followed by a dry period can still be wetter than usual if they are averaged together.

“We might have had most of our rainfall on the front end,” Yura said.

And, though January may have seemed unusually warm, the average high of 63 degrees was just above the normal average high of 61.5 degrees.

The fire danger may stick around a while. The rains of last year saturated the ground, which in turn led to well-watered foliage, which is a good thing if you like lots of healthy foliage, but can present a problem when the weather turns dry. Lots of well-grown plant life is drying out. That means more fuel added to the fires.

“When we go through a wet period,” Yura said, “it’s usually followed by a high risk of wildfires.”

Winds, dry air mean fire danger Monday in Austin metro area, Hill Country

National Weather Service
National Weather Service

Monday forecast for Austin: After enjoying several days of sunshine and no rain, a dangerous combination of high winds, low humidity and dry vegetation has prompted the National Weather Service to issue a fire weather watch for the Austin metro area and much of the Hill Country.

In the map shown above, the red outlined areas could see winds of 15 to 20 mph, gusts as high as 30 mph, humidity values dropping to as low as 15 percent. The breezy northerly winds are expected across the region with highs in the upper 50s to upper 60s, the weather service says.

A brisk Monday morning greeted Austin with clear skies and temps in the low 40's. (Ralph Barrera / American-Statesman)
A brisk Monday morning greeted Austin with clear skies and temps in the low 40’s. (Ralph Barrera / American-Statesman)

A fire weather watch is issued when critical fire conditions are expected to occur within the next four days. The red flag warning for the Austin metro area will be in effect from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. Monday. The weather service worries that any wildfires that may develop will spread rapidly, so forecasters are discouraging any outdoor burning.

Forecasters say the winds will diminish dramatically around sunset Monday, which will reduce the fire risk by nightfall.

National Weather Service
National Weather Service

Once the fire danger subsides, the outlook for Austin calls for sunshine all week with temperatures near 80 by Friday, the National Weather Service says.

Monday’s forecast includes sunshine with a near-normal high around 62 and a nighttime low near 36 under clear skies.

The days start to warm up on Tuesday, as the high temperature approaches 70 degrees and the low hovers around 40.

Wednesday’s daily peak temperature should be firmly in the low 70s under sunny skies with a low temperature a balmy 47.

Thursday could see a high near 78 but the south-southwest winds of 10 to 15 mph could kick up gusts as high as 20 mph. At night, the forecast calls for mostly clear skies and a low around 50.

The streak of uninterrupted sunshine continues on Friday with a high near 75, but with increased cloudiness at night and a low near 48.


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