Residents of the southern United States spent December enduring some of the worst flooding in more than a decade. In South America, hundreds of thousands of people in the bordering areas of Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil, and Argentina had to evacuate their homes because of severe flooding in the wake of heavy rains brought on by El Niño.
Now, NASA scientists are saying the warm weather cycle is expected to unload its biggest punch in early 2016.
According to its latest satellite imagery, the strong El Niño that’s been brewing in the Pacific Ocean has shown “no signs of waning” and is on pace to match or even surpass the 1997–98 El Niño event—the biggest ever recorded.Related Your Guide to the Coming Weirdness That Is El Niño
“In 2014, the current El Niño teased us—wavering off and on,” Josh Willis, project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement. “But in early 2015, atmospheric conditions changed, and El Niño steadily expanded in the central and eastern Pacific.”
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In the satellite image comparisons, Willis noted that the 1997 event’s unusually high sea-surface temperatures along the equator peaked in November, while the 2015–16 El Niño appears to have raised water temperatures far into December.
“In 2015, the area of high sea levels is larger,” Willis said. “This could mean we have not yet seen the peak of this El Niño.”In December 1997, sea surface temperatures were higher and peaked in November (left). This year, the area of high sea levels is less intense but considerably broader (right). (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
For the drought-stricken western U.S., El Niño–influenced rain and snowfall in late 2015 were a welcome weather change. California officials announced on Dec. 30 that snowpack in the Sierra Nevada—a significant source of the state’s water supply—had reached 136 percent of normal level.
But for the southern and eastern parts of the country, the strong El Niño is bringing spring-like flooding conditions in the middle of winter.
According to Reuters, southern states along the Mississippi River are bracing for the flooding that swamped communities from the Ohio River Valley to eastern Oklahoma over the Christmas holiday period, causing thousands of evacuations and killing at least 31 people.
“All that water’s coming south, and we have to be ready for it,” Louisiana Lieutenant Governor-Elect Billy Nungesser told CNN. “It’s a serious concern. It’s early in the season. We usually don’t see this until much later.”