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How El Niño will affect winter weather forecasts

Warmer-than-average temps will linger for now, but cold could creep in at the tail-end of winter.

Bloomberg

December 8, 2023

4 Min Read
Thermometer in winter with some snow
Getty Images/Eric O'Connell

By Brian K Sullivan

It’s the cusp of winter in the Northern Hemisphere, but in many places from the U.S. to Japan, it feels more like spring — and forecasters say that’s a sign of what to expect over the next couple of months, until a late-season cold snap arrives.  

In New York City this weekend, temperatures will soar above 60F. Warmer-than-average weather will also blanket London and Tokyo. And longer-term outlooks show mild conditions lingering for much of North America, Europe and East Asia into January.

It all comes down to climate change and El Niño, a warming of the tropical Pacific Ocean that can trigger weather disasters and roil commodities markets. Even before this year ends, the World Meteorological Organization has declared it the hottest on record. That heat is expected to linger in the coming months, curbing energy prices but amplifying the drought that has damaged crops, sparked wildfires and shriveled major trade routes.
“Due to this year’s El Niño being quite strong, its influence should be apparent,” commercial forecasting firm NatGasWeather said in a note to clients this week. With temperatures worldwide smashing records earlier in 2023, “this exceptionally warm global background state is likely to keep much of the Northern Hemisphere warmer than normal this winter.”

Already, prices for natural gas and heating oil are tumbling on speculation that bone-chilling cold will prove rare in the coming months. The premium for U.S. gas delivered in March over April futures — a spread known as the widowmaker for its volatility — is near an all-time low for the 2024 contracts, signaling that traders expect ample supplies at the end of winter.

Heating costs will fall for more than half of U.S. households, according to government estimates. Gas prices will be about 24% lower in a warmer scenario, the Energy Information Administration said in a report. 

European gas has also slid over the past month on the outlook for robust inventories, even as uncertainty about Russian supplies lingers amid the war in Ukraine. The region’s gas storage facilities could exit the colder season at 45% full, comfortably above historical norms, according to Bloomberg Intelligence. 

“Europe has the best chance of having an overall mild winter,” said Judah Cohen, director of seasonal forecasting at Verisk Atmospheric and Environmental Research. 

A mild start to winter has also delayed fears of an energy crunch in North Asia, home to the world’s top liquefied natural gas importers. China saw the warmest autumn in 62 years, while Japan recorded the highest-ever temperature for November in records dating back to the 19th century. Only a bout of extreme cold weather could drain gas inventories in China, according to consultant BSC.

El Niño is expected to last through March, affecting weather patterns across the globe. One potential result is another year of little snow across Canada, which would add more fuel to a mild winter across North America, said Paul Pastelok, long-range forecasting team leader at AccuWeather Inc.

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The dearth of precipitation could mean another severe wildfire season for Canada next summer. Blazes across the country earlier this year shrouded much of the U.S. in a smoky haze, leaving major cities including New York with the world’s worst air quality. Dry conditions also damaged Canada’s wheat crop and sent freight rates soaring as water levels on the Mississippi River fell. 

While forecasts are milder than the long-term average, some cold could creep in at the tail-end of the season in February, Pastelok said. Much of North America and Europe around the Mediterranean will trend warmer than normal overall, according to commercial forecaster Commodity Weather Group, though there’s the potential for frigid weather later in the winter. 

El Niño is expected to usher in a mild winter across the US. This one, though, has some peculiar features that could make it cooler overall than most, said Todd Crawford, vice president of meteorology at commercial forecaster Atmospheric G2. 

The Madden-Julian Oscillation, a wave of unsettled weather that starts in the Indian Ocean and moves across the Pacific and Atlantic, could bring lower temperatures to the U.S. at the end of December, Crawford said. And in early 2024, a breakdown of the so-called polar vortex — the girdle of winds that holds cold in place over the Arctic — may allow frigid temperatures to spill south about six weeks later, he said.

While the winter overall will be slightly cooler than last year, it will be milder than the 10- and 30-year averages across the U.S. and the 30-year average in Europe, according to Commodity Weather Group. The outlook is based on heating degree days, a measure of how weather affects energy demand.
But climate change, which has had a hand in extreme weather all through 2023, could upend parts of these forecasts.

“My prediction for this winter: weirdness and plenty of surprises,'” said Jennifer Francis, a senior scientist with the Woodwell Climate Research Center.

© 2023 Bloomberg L.P.

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