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Q&A: With El Niño, fewer hurricanes

Pacific temps affect storms

Is an El Niño expected this season? How often do they occur? Do they really keep hurricanes away from Florida?

El Niño, Spanish for "little boy," is a meteorological condition that occurs every three to seven years and can last for a year or even two. It occurs when surface temperatures in the eastern Pacific Ocean rise, and the subsequent effects on climate are felt in many places. For example, it causes high rainfall and flooding along the west coast of South America and dry conditions on the Western Pacific, such as Australia and Southeast Asia.

In the United States, El Niño has diminished hurricane activity in the past because of upper-level wind shear, and caused warmer winters in the Midwest and Northeast, wetter and cooler conditions in California and the Southwest, and dry and foggy winters and warm springs in the Pacific Northwest.

In 1997, for instance, a strong El Niño was detected and there was just one storm in the Gulf of Mexico. Another very strong El Niño in 1982 limited gulf activity to two storms. And scientists say the average annual U.S. damage during El Niño years is about $800 million, about half the damage caused in years marked by the opposite effect, La Niña.

Earlier this month, meteorologists confirmed El Niño has returned, and they expect it to strengthen over the next few months and to last through the winter of 2009-10. Subsequently they scaled back their forecasts for the number of hurricanes expected.

But some scientists recently published a study that said El Niño could be changing and shifting thousands of miles to the west. If that happened, El Niño years could bring more storms to the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts. The phenomenon is called El Niño Modoki (for the Japanese phrase "similar but different"). Why it might be shifting is unclear; those scientists say it could be a naturally occurring climate change or it could be caused by global warming.

Hurricane flights risky

I'm always amazed that planes fly into hurricanes. Have any ever not come back?

Planes have been flying into Atlantic hurricanes and Pacific cyclones since 1943 to gather crucial information, and six of the flights have ended in disaster, according to a recent series of articles by Jeff Masters on his excellent Web site, Weather Underground (

Just one of the six happened when a plane flew into an Atlantic hurricane. It was Sept. 26, 1955, when a Navy plane with nine crew members and two Canadian journalists flew from Jacksonville into Hurricane Janet, a Category 4 storm in the Caribbean Sea, and disappeared.

The other five flew into Pacific storms. The latest was on Oct. 12, 1974, when an Air Force plane investigating Typhoon Bess in the South China Sea crashed with six men aboard.

Q&A: With El Niño, fewer hurricanes 07/19/09 [Last modified: Sunday, July 19, 2009 4:30am]
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