Why is it so hot in Texas right now? Don't blame El Niño — at least not yet
As Texas continues baking during a record-setting heat wave, it’s also under the sway of another powerful weather pattern.
The phenomenon known as “El Niño” reemerged in 2023 after about three years of its counterpart, La Niña.
During La Niña, strong trade winds push warm water toward Asia and colder water to the surface off the coasts of the Americas, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“This tends to lead to drought in the southern U.S. and heavy rains and flooding in the Pacific Northwest and Canada,” scientists at the NOAA wrote. “During a La Niña year, winter temperatures are warmer than normal in the South and cooler than normal in the North.”
Under El Niño, those winds subside, and warmer water is pushed back toward the west coast of the Americas. “With this shift, areas in the northern U.S. and Canada are dryer and warmer than usual. But in the U.S. Gulf Coast and Southeast, these periods are wetter than usual and have increased flooding,” according to NOAA.
Although the United States is now in the grips of El Niño, the pattern isn’t directly responsible for the current heatwave, said National Weather Service’s Orlando Bermudez. According to the San Antonio-based meteorologist, it’s a little simpler.
“That transition [from El Niño to La Niña] is going to take months,” he said. “So, what we are seeing here, this is normal.”
Instead, he blames the current heat wave on a seasonal phenomenon known as a subtropical ridge. This ridge develops across the southwestern United States and Northern Mexico, and sometimes moves northward toward Washington state and California. In other instances, it can move toward the South Plains or North-Central Mexico.
“Here we go again. We have that feature that controls our weather for the summer,” he told The Texas Newsroom.
As for El Niño: “It’s not going to be until fall into winter and we are going to see those changes,” he said. The current heat wave is caused by a stronger sub-tropical ridge which has settled over parts of Arizona and New Mexico, Bermudez said.
“It could get stronger, sometimes it is a little weaker. It all depends on the center of it,” he said. “That’s why El Paso is getting all these records, because [the sub-tropical ridge] sits right over you.”
El Paso broke the record earlier this week of the most consecutive days above 100 degrees — 23 — set back in 1994. That trend looks like it will continue, with temperatures expected to stay above 100 degrees in El Paso for at least the next week.
Over the weekend, the sub-tropical pattern will sway to the east, and the San Antonio area should also keep seeing temperatures above 100 degrees.
But because of the drought conditions from years of La Niña, dry and hot weather conditions will continue for some time.
According to the National Weather Service, El Paso is under an excessive heat warning until Thursday and, after that, a heat advisory until Saturday with high temperatures well above 100 degrees. Heat warnings or advisories are also in place for Central and South Texas, Southeast Texas and parts of the Midland/Odessa area.
Although it's unclear how the current El Niño cycle will affect the weather later this fall, the World Meteorological Organization is urging people and governments to be ready for even hotter conditions, NPR reported earlier this year.
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