Within the heady atmosphere of meteorologists and weather wonks, everyone’s thinking is clouded by one question this winter: “Will she or won’t she?”
What is La Niña?
La Niña has been an on-again, off-again affair so far in 2016. She’s taken her own sweet time to emerge this year – in fact, back in September, the La Niña was so weak that experts believed it wouldn’t emerge during the fall or possibly winter.
But in spite of the cynicism of her suitors, La Niña finally emerged in equatorial waters of the Pacific Ocean (just west of New Guinea) back in November. However, she remains weak enough that, even though the data indicates La Niña is present, the actual effects are more in line with what’s called Neutral ENSO.
What is ENSO?
The El Nino weather pattern, also called the “El Niño/Southern Oscillation” – or ENSO for short – affects water temperatures in the huge expanse of the western Pacific Ocean. While El Niño brings warmer-than-normal sea surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, La Niña brings colder-than-normal temperatures. These warmer or colder than normal water temperatures change how the atmosphere circulates, impacting weather conditions world wide:
- An El Niño tends to bring warmer winters to the northern states, but cooler, wetter conditions to Texas.
- La Niña tends to bring cooler than normal temperatures to the northern states, but dry and warm conditions to Texas and the southern states.
- A Neutral ENSO tends to bring colder than average winter temperatures to the upper midwest and northeast, but warmer temperatures to Texas and higher amounts of rainfall to the southeast.
Some may recall (with a shiver) back in 2014 when a neutral ENSO contributed to an incursion called the Polar Vortex, which set up a long-lasting ridge that kept the northeast frozen almost solid for months.
How Will This Impact the 2016-17 Winter?
NOAA currently operates under the assumption that La Niña conditions are present, but because they are weak, there’s a bunch of uncertainty in the forecast. While previous forecasts have suggested there were reduced chances for a Polar Vortex visit this year, the deep cold snap that swept across the Great Plains and upper Midwest from Dec. 12 to 19, 2016 proved otherwise.
The pattern of atmospheric circulation over the North Pole known as the Arctic Oscillation directly affects the strength of the Polar Vortex, as it experiences periods of “positive” and “negative” phases. Specifically, the negative phase contributes to large dips and wobbles in the Jet Stream, and this allows arms of the Polar Vortex to sweep across North America.
NOAA’s January forecast also takes this into account, cautioning that, since the Arctic Oscillation seems somewhat tilted towards negative throughout the winter, there may be more cold snaps in store for the lower 48 states — including Texas. Meanwhile, NOAA expects that La Niña will drift into ENSO Neutral sometime during January – March, 2017.
How Will This Impact the 2016-17 Texas Winter?
That’s good news for Texas because it means there are enhanced chances for warmer than average temperatures during this period. There’s also a good chance for dryer conditions, as well, which comes as mixed news since the bulk of Texas is not experiencing drought conditions — yet.
The entire East Coast also has a good chance for a warmer-than-average temperatures while the northern Great Plains and upper Midwestern states face increased chances for below normal temperatures and snow. Since these regions are highly dependent on natural gas for heating and power generation (especially in the Northeast), there is a shadow of a possibility that natural gas consumption might not run as high as anticipated this winter and might help hold down gas prices in the spring.
Still, there’s a heavy blob of uncertainty in that optimistic thinking because atmospheric conditions are ragged enough to let more cold snaps break loose and swoop south.
Enjoy, but Stay Ready!
For Texas, little has changed from both the NOAA’s and ERCOT’s earlier forecasts of a warm Texas winter, but the Lone Star State should also expect the occasional winter blast. The main question remains how cold this winter will be in northern states because that rate of natural gas consumption not only impacts that commodity price but also the price of your Texas electricity bill.
If you’ve already found a long-term fixed rate electricity plan, then you’re set to save money. However, if you have signed up for an introductory rate or variable rate electricity plan, you should expect price spikes. The shrewd, money-saving move is get into a short-term fixed rate electricity plan now, and when energy prices hit their yearly low in April, shop for a fixed-rate electricity plan that locks in a low rate for 12 to 24 months.