Government forecasters say that a weak-to-moderate El Nino event is expected to continue developing over the next six to nine months, with global weather effects likely to be considerably less pronounced than during that last warm-up of the tropical Pacific.
Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported Thursday that ocean temperatures were nearly 1 degree Fahrenheit above normal across much of the central equatorial Pacific last month and as much as 3.6 degrees above average in the area off the coasts of Ecuador and Peru.
Forecasters at NOAA's Climate Prediction Center in Camp Springs, Md., noted that early indications of a stronger El Nino, starting with wind patterns late last year and continuing into February, seem to have weakened, signaling a slower evolution of the warming pattern that happens every four to seven years.
And they said several computer models and statistical forecasts also suggest there will be only gradual warming over the next several months, with "weak-to-moderate El Nino conditions by the end of 2002."
They added that "a weak or moderate El Nino would feature considerably weaker global impacts than were experienced during the very strong 1997-98 El Nino."
That one contributed to deadly storms, heat waves, wildfires, floods and droughts and caused more than $32 billion in property damage worldwide.
Senior forecaster Vernon Kousky said that a weaker episode had always been expected, since historically "we have not seen strong El Ninos back-to-back," but noted that the effects of less-pronounced events are quirkier and harder to predict.
Some experts have been touting a strong El Nino as an antidote to drought conditions in the U.S. Southwest later this year, since the phenomenon typically brings wetter-than-normal conditions to that region, as well as to the U.S. Gulf Coast and Southeast.
At the same time, a less significant El Nino likely means fewer storms for California and the Pacific Northwest, but boosts the odds for an active Atlantic hurricane season.
National Weather Service Director Jack Kelly said satellite and surface monitoring of the Pacific will continue to watch how the El Nino evolves, "and we will continue providing guidance on potential impacts."
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