Jul 6, 2023 - Climate

What El Niño and a warm Atlantic Ocean could mean for Florida

Illustration of a question mark with a hurricane icon as the dot

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

An El Niño climate pattern, which happens roughly every two to seven years, began in June. Typically, it brings wind shear that suppresses hurricane activity in the Atlantic Ocean.

Why it matters: This year, however, temperatures in the North Atlantic are so hot that they're alarming scientists and could counteract El Niño.

What they're saying: The warming "is a one-in-a-quarter-million-year kind of thing," Ben Kirtman, a University of Miami professor, tells Axios. "It's out of bounds."

  • "We were hoping that because we had an El Niño, that hurricane season would be below-normal," says Kirtman, whose team provides data that underpins forecasts by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). But with the Atlantic hot, "the risk of an active hurricane season has gone up."

Between the lines: In May, NOAA predicted a 40% chance of a near-normal season, a 30% chance of an above-normal season and a 30% chance of a below-normal season.

  • "The forecasters are hedging because it's so warm in the Atlantic," Kirtman says. "They're saying, 'near-normal with a non-trivial probability of an active hurricane.' It's really crazy."

Context: El Niño affects the whole world.

  • Under normal conditions, warm surface water in the Pacific Ocean moves westward toward Asia while cold water rises up, per NOAA.
  • But during El Niño, the upwelling slows, and surface water stays warm and is pushed eastward toward the U.S. instead.
  • El Niño brings wet conditions to Florida, but its winds hinder tropical Atlantic hurricanes — "basically shearing the tops from developing storms before a healthy circulation can form," per NOAA.

The bottom line: "It's going to be a very interesting battle" between the forces of El Niño and the warm Atlantic, Weather Channel meteorologist Ari Sarsalari said in a broadcast.

  • Kirtman predicts El Niño will still cause wet weather in Florida this winter.

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