Whatcom County residents enjoying a second straight summer that’s warmer and drier than normal probably aren’t thinking much about winter.
But scientists sure are, and the temperature of water off the western coast of South America is telling them that the Northwest’s winter is looking warmer and possibly wetter by the day.
In its most recent report, the NOAA Climate Prediction Center is forecasting a 65 percent chance of an El Niño by fall, and a 70 percent chance of an El Niño for winter 2018-2019.
“It’s looking like they’re pretty confident,” said Johnny Burg, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Seattle.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
That could be bad news for the Northwest’s ski areas, because an El Niño usually means warmer temperatures.
Warmer than normal temperatures and “maybe not so much snow in the mountains because the snow levels will be higher,” Burg said.
Scientists make predictions about the coming winter by measuring the temperature of the Pacific Ocean’s surface east of Ecuador.
Subtle changes in ocean temperatures can influence weather patterns many months and miles away, research shows.
Warmer temperatures can mean that an El Niño pattern is forming and cooler temperatures can mean that its sister weather pattern, a La Niña, is developing.
La Niña winters are usually colder in the Northwest and the winters of 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 brought heavy snowfall to the North Cascades.
Mt. Baker Ski Area saw 844 inches of snow last year and 866 inches the previous year — both La Niña winters.
In 2014-2015, a weak El Niño year, the ski area got only 303 inches of snow and forced the cancellation of its signature snowboarding event, the Legendary Banked Slalom.
One of the strongest El Niño years ever recorded, 2015-2016, caused drought conditions throughout the West.
Meanwhile, Western Washington will see cooler weather through Sunday, when the mercury is slated to spike above 80 degrees again, Burg said.
Skies will be cloudy Thursday with temperatures around 70 degrees, with sunny skies returning late Thursday, he said.