- An El Niño is forecasted to emerge for late this summer, but weather patterns suggest that it has already arrived.
- Late spring-early summer warming will occur over the central and eastern U.S.; then, temperatures will trend cooler into the summer for the northern plains.
- Heavy spring rains across the Gulf States and into the Great Plains will accompany storm systems, but nothing like past record years (like 1993).
- Best matching analog years: 1982, 1986, 2004, 2006 and 2014
There has been no shortage for the insurance industry of severe weather during the first quarter of 2017. A warmer-than-normal start to the year, aided by record Gulf of Mexico sea surface temperatures, has produced a relatively active period of severe weather. Will this weather pattern continue into the next few months, or are we on the road to a quieter-than-normal weather pattern?
In reviewing the first three months of 2017, the weather patterns have been dominated by Pacific influences, with storm after storm pounding the West Coast. As these storm systems moved across the U.S. and into the central U.S., they were enhanced by tapping a large amount of warm air from the Gulf of Mexico, which also produced warmth across the eastern U.S. This weather pattern has provided plenty of opportunity for severe weather, and resulted in several significant severe weather outbreaks that impacted the insurance industry. Some of the bigger events occurred on January 2, 21-23, February 28-March 1, March 6-7, and most recently, April 2-3.
So far in April, it would appear this weather pattern has continued the pattern established in March, with a series of infrequent, but very energetic storm systems digging into the western U.S. before lifting up into the mid-west and northeastern U.S. This has meant that much of the U.S. should continue to experience similar above-normal severe weather activity; but these storm systems should start traversing a more northern track across the northern-tier states. This pattern indicates that June-like weather might appear in April and May.
Many long-range climate forcer signals can provide seasonal forecasters clues about what weather to expect over the next few months. The El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), and Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO) are some of the most common signals. Although ENSO seems the most popular climate forcer in recent seasonal forecasts, a few words of caution are required: fickle spring weather is notoriously misleading and results in difficult forecasts (this phenomenon is so familiar that it has its own name, the “spring predictability barrier”). Second, we are technically coming out of a weak La Niña (which has a traditionally predictable outcome), but the atmosphere isn’t following its typical pattern following a weak La Niña. Instead, the weather pattern over the continental U.S. reflected more of an El Niño pattern, with widespread warmth across much of the country and above-normal precipitation across parts of the southern tier and West Coast states.
The PDO has been positive for a record 39 months (during a positive phase, the west Pacific becomes cooler and part of the eastern ocean warms), but the weather pattern over the western U.S. has been anything but reflective of a positive PDO pattern. Usually a positive PDO will lead to warmer and drier conditions in the western U.S., but this has not been the case over the last few months.
Seasonal forecasting can also help us understand current areas of drought. Large areas of moderate-to-severe drought can create a positive feedback loop, meaning that already-dry regions are more susceptible to warm and dry weather than non-drought areas. As illustrated by the above map, patches of drought are currently scattered throughout the country, but these scattered patches are too insignificant to raise red flags for long-term warm and dry conditions over next few months.
Research suggests that the continued warm water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico will likely mean severe weather will continue to erupt over the southern and central U.S. into late spring. Historically, when the Gulf of Mexico trends warmer than normal, there is more energy to fuel severe storms and tornadoes.
Evaluating recent weather patterns and various climate forcers produces the following analog years: 1982, 1986, 2004, 2006, and 2014. These years suggest an active storm pattern that may result in:
- Much of the U.S. experiencing near-normal temperatures between April-August
- The western U.S. and southeast warmer then normal
- The northern states slightly colder than normal
However, above-normal national temperatures now and into early summer should give way to more normal temperatures or cooling temperature patterns in the Great Plains later in the year. Hit-or-miss precipitation across much of the country will be a by-product of severe weather and will provide rain in some areas but not others. As a result, dry conditions in the southeast could progress into summer. Severe weather should remain active until May, with activity waning to more normal levels as summer progresses; but overall, the insurance industry should expect to see much higher levels of insured loss than in the last few years.