Watch top Texas weather expert explain fall and winter forecast

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South and Central Texas are probably headed for a relatively warm and dry season ahead thanks to La Niña, according to the National Weather Service.

Forecaster Larry Hopper lays out the details in a webinar posted Oct. 13. The weather service put a 70 percent chance of a weak La Niña lasting through the fall, with a 55 percent chance of one in the winter.

Hopper’s 18-minute presentation has the kind of detail that weather geeks should appreciate, but he lays things out clearly enough for a weather layperson to follow. A La Niña is a weather pattern heavily influenced by surface temperatures in the Pacific. It is basically the bizarro twin of El Niño, the pattern largely responsible for the heavy rainfall last year and earlier this year.

Unlike the unusually strong El Niño – dubbed the Godzilla El Niño – this La Niña appears to be a weak one. Hopper’s presentation is nuanced and like, all long-term forecasts, includes necessary caveats. (He’s offering a forecast, not pretending he’s been sent back in time by your future self to advise you on stock purchases.) But generally speaking, Hopper said, people should probably expect a mild fall and possibly winter, rather than one significantly hotter than usual. Flash floods remain a risk, as they usually are this time of year, and wildfires are also possible, though the ground is wet enough to mitigate the worst risks.

It’s also worth watching because Hopper explains some of the climatological phenomena at work beyond La Niña and provides a window into how forecasters weave them together into the overall forecast.

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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Wildfire worries in the Hill Country as sunshine, above-normal warmth continues

National Weather Service
National Weather Service

Tuesday forecast for Austin: Sunshine, clear skies and above-normal warmth are expected for one more day this week but it comes with a caveat: areas along and west of Interstate 35 could be vulnerable to wildfires because of the dry air and gusty winds, the National Weather Service says.

In its latest weather bulletin, the weather service says a red flag warning is in effect from noon to 6 p.m. for the Edwards Plateau and the Hill Country. Fire weather conditions will improve by nightfall as winds diminish and humidity increases.

Otherwise, the outlook for Tuesday calls for sunshine with a high near 72 — nowhere near record territory but about 10 degrees higher than normal. Winds from the west-northwest of 5 to 15 mph should make for a breezy day. At night, clear skies continue with a low around 38.

By Wednesday, the effects of the cold front should be evident as the sunshine is tempered by below-normal high temperatures around 57. Chilly north winds around 10 mph could make it feel a little colder. The nighttime low will be near freezing around 34, the weather service says.

The forecast for Thursday calls for similar conditions as Wednesday: Sunny with a high in the upper 50s, clear at night with near-freezing lows around 33.

But the first chance for rain shows up in the outlook for Friday night, which forecasters say has a 30 percent chance of showers after 7 p.m.

Dense fog advisory in effect until 10 a.m.; record heat possible ahead of cold front

National Weather Service
National Weather Service

8 a.m. update: A dense fog advisory is in effect until 10 a.m. for the Austin metro area, the National Weather Service said.

7:30 a.m. update: A red flag warning will be in effect Monday afternoon and on Tuesday from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. each day for western parts of the Edwards Plateau, according to the National Weather Service. A fire weather watch also will be in effect for most of the Hill Country from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesday.

Although gusty south winds of 15 to 30 mph are expected in the Hill Country Monday afternoon, the gusts will continue from the northwest, blowing at 15 to 30 mph on Tuesday in the wake of a cold front, the weather service says.

In the next 48 hours, relative humidity in the Hill Country will drop below 20 percent around 1 p.m. each afternoon, and bottom out between 15 and 20 percent by mid-afternoon, the weather service says. As a result, grasses can ignite easily and fire can spread quickly. Humidity and plant moisture are higher to the east, the weather service says, and winds will likely be a little lower.

Monday forecast for Austin: We could break another daily heat record on Monday, but enjoy it while it lasts: the unseasonal warmth will end once a cold front blows through the Austin area late Monday, the National Weather Service says.

Austin already broke a daily heat record on Sunday as temperatures hit 86 degrees at Camp Mabry in Central Austin. The weather service outlook for Monday calls for high temperatures to hit 81, only two degrees shy of the record high for Feb. 1 set in 1963. But you never know, the record might fall: Austin weather has a way of surprising us all the time.

In the meantime, patchy fog will plague morning commuters until around 9 a.m., the weather service said. But sunshine will emerge and dominate the forecast for the rest of the week.

But Monday also will see winds pick up as warm southeast winds shift and start coming from the south at 10 to 15 mph in the morning. Winds could gust as high as 20 mph.

However, the high winds, dry air and near-record heat also mean potential wildfire danger in the western parts of the Hill Country on Monday and into Tuesday.

Patchy fog resumes at night under otherwise partly cloudy skies and a low temperature around 53. South-southeast winds of 5 to 15 mph become northwest gusts after midnight as the cold front blows through the area.

Once the cold front arrives in Austin sometime around midnight, the cold air will drag daily temperatures back to the upper 50s and near-freezing temperatures at night on Wednesday and Thursday.

Wednesday’s forecast calls for a high near 56, but under sunny skies. At night, the low temperature will drop to around 34.
Sunshine continues Thursday, with high temperatures near 58. The nighttime low is expected to fall again to around 34.