No El Niño yet, but more rain coming to Texas

The numbers might not measure a full-blown El Niño, but with plumes of moisture rolling off the warm Pacific into drought-plagued California, the Southwest and Texas, the results could be much the same.

And for areas from Dallas to the Red River and into the Panhandle, the driest part of the state, the potential for a wetter-than-normal winter and spring is good news whether it comes with a name or not.

To designate Pacific weather conditions as an El Niño or La Niña requires that things like water temperature reach certain levels for five consecutive months, said Bob Smerbeck, a senior meteorologist with private forecasting service AccuWeather. That hasn’t happened yet.

“We’ve been monitoring this for quite some time, and conditions have generally been neutral,” Smerbeck said. “Now water temperatures are above normal over much of the eastern and central Pacific.”

El Niño’s impacts extend across several continents, potentially bringing rain to North America and brutal droughts to places like Australia. So that nation’s Bureau of Meteorology closely tracks El Niño development. In its most recent update, the bureau noted that “further warming of the tropical Pacific Ocean is likely, so it remains possible that the ocean and atmosphere will fully couple in the coming weeks to months.”

Meteorologists in New Zealand note that some, but not all atmospheric indicators point toward a weak El Niño, with a 75 percent chance of development between December and February.

But even if that doesn’t happen, the warmer-than-normal water temperatures in the central and eastern Pacific, particularly from southern Alaska to the tip of Baja California, could mean more rain for Texas and California, AccuWeather’s Smerbeck said.

“We think the warmer water will have an impact on storm tracks in the winter, and will improve the availability of moisture, even if it isn’t an official El Niño,” he said. “So we have nice storms coming into California, and some tropical moisture across Texas.”

Large pockets of warm water in the Pacific can split the jet stream into two branches over North America, with the southern branch steering storms across the southern tier of the United States, he said.

“We are seeing a semi-active southern branch of the jet bringing us some unsettled weather with multiple rain chances,” said Steve Fano, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Fort Worth. “We aren’t expecting super big rain amounts over the next few days, but we are looking at getting some needed rain.”

Rick Mitchell, a meteorologist with KXAS (NBC5), sees chances for rain Friday, although coverage will be spotty, and again on Sunday. But he expects only light rain both days.

In an average year, Dallas gets about 36 inches of rain. For the first 11 months of 2014, though, Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport received just over 20 inches, far below normal levels and considerably less than the four drought years that preceded it.

“This has definitely been a dry year, following a few dry years,” Fano said. “And even though the prediction is for a wetter winter, you have to remember that winter is our driest time of year.

“So we have to keep things in perspective,” he said. “At least we aren’t in a completely dry pattern. We’re seeing some signs of rain. And if we can hold on to this pattern with an active southern branch of the jet stream, maybe we can get through to spring, when we see much more appreciable rain.”

Fano said he expects “some notable precipitation” through December, perhaps a couple of inches of rain.

“But that still doesn’t put us in great shape,” he said. “Even if we get up to 22 inches [for the year], we’d still be the 14th-driest on record” — records that stretch back to 1898.