Besser Natural Area | Photo By Amanda Shaffer
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El Niño Effect Ahead: What to Expect This Winter in Michigan

Michigan residents are used to the colder temperatures and varying degrees of snowfall that accompany a typical Michigan winter.

But those who aren’t particularly fond of winter may be in luck this year because experts say the upcoming El Niño winter ahead could mean a milder winter for the Mitten State.

The El Nino climate pattern historically affects weather patterns worldwide, including Michigan and the Great Lakes region.

While there’s no exact timetable for when or how frequently El Nino occurs, typically it occurs every two to seven years and can last between nine and 12 months, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

El Nino

What Exactly is El Niño?

According to the NOAA, El Niño and La Niña are frequently occurring Pacific Ocean climate patterns that can have an effect on weather all over the world.

During normal weather patterns, trade winds — winds that circle the Earth near the Equator — blow to take warm weather east from South America toward Asia. Colder water then rises from the ocean’s depths to replace the warm water.

El Niño and La Niña are patterns that break from that normal cycle. El Nino happens more frequently than La Nina but doesn’t always occur on a regular schedule.

When El Nino happens in the Pacific Ocean, warm weather is pushed back east toward the western coast of North and South America. These warmer waters then cause a fluctuation in the jet stream, pushing it south.

The jet stream is a narrow, fast-moving current of air that flows from west to east high up in the earth’s atmosphere and connects the El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) to climate patterns in North America.

The Pacific jetstream, which El Nino affects, is a creation of the Earth’s rotation and tropical heating from the sun. As the oceans and tropical lands heat up, warm air rises, flows north and south, cools, and eventually sinks back down where it flows toward the Equator.

During La Nina events, trade winds are stronger than normal, and more warm water is pushed toward Asia. On the United States’ west coast, more cold water rises to the surface, which shifts the jet stream north.

La Nina events typically see warmer than average temperatures in the south during the winter and cooler than normal temperatures in the north, as well as potentially more severe weather during hurricane season. La Nina historically has also brought flooding to Canada and the Pacific Northwest and drought to the southern United States.

El Nino

What Does El Niño Mean for Michigan?

So how exactly do warm Pacific Ocean water and tropical air currents affect weather in Michigan and North America?

When the jet stream shifts from its neutral position, it typically means dryer, warmer winters for Canada and the northern United States and a higher risk of flooding and wetter weather for states on the Gulf Coast and the nation’s Southeast Region.

According to Zachary Johnson, a faculty member at Central Michigan University, this year’s El Nino event is showing itself to be consistent with past moderate-to-strong events, but every El Nino event can impact weather differently.

Historically, warmer, dryer Michigan winters during El Nino events have happened because of the migration of the jet stream northward. Johnson says that doesn’t mean Michigan won’t receive snow or experience cold snaps or lake effect snowfall, but those events may happen less frequently.

As an example, during an El Nino year in 2015, staff at the National Weather Service in Gaylord collected data that showed many locations in northern Michigan came close to breaking temperature records that November, including in Gaylord, which is situated in the heart of northern Michigan’s snow belt.

Data also showed that during the 2015 El Nino cycle, northern Michigan locations had November snow totals well below their seasonal average after many of them had record-breaking November snowfall totals in 2014.

While no one can predict exactly how or for how long El Nino may affect Michigan this winter, data shows that Michiganders should prepare for a milder winter.

Lake Superior - Presque Isle Park - Winter - Marquette, Michigan

How Does El Niño Affect Winter Activities?

Though winters and be colder and longer in some parts of the Mitten State, Michiganders young and old still enjoy being outside in the winter to partake in skating, ice fishing, sledding, pond hockey, and much more.

But how will an El Nino winter affect all those activities? Johnson, the staffer from CMU, says Michigan residents and out-of-state visitors will still be able to enjoy all their favorite outdoor winter pastimes.

With a potentially milder winter ahead, Johnson said Michigan’s famous ski resorts may not get as much snow as usual, but there will be plenty of time to hit the slopes. That also means there will be plenty of time to ice fish, cross-country ski, snowmobile, and even build snowmen.

Still, Johnson says, it’s best to look at the bright side: A milder winter may mean less snow, but it also may mean less snow shoveling and cheaper heating bills.

Besser Natural Area | Photo By Amanda Shaffer
Besser Natural Area | photo by Amanda Shaffer

Make the Most of a Michigan Winter

Regardless of what the coming winter may bring, Michiganders can expect some degree of cold and snowfall.

Longtime Michiganders know that depending on where they live in the Mitten State, winter means bundling up, breaking out the snow shovels, and heavy snowfall, especially in the Upper Peninsula, which gets hundreds of inches of snow each year.

But there are also plenty of positives that come out of a Michigan winter, especially for those who enjoy being outside. Michigan offers residents and visitors alike plenty of opportunities for snowtubing, cross-country skiing, downhill skiing, and much more.

The winter season may not be every Michigander’s favorite, but there’s plenty to see and do for those willing to embrace and brave the elements.

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