From drought-busting rains in California to wildfire smoke in New York City and the active tropics, 2023 was crazy. But El Niño isn’t done yet, as host Ed Oswald explains.
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Ed Oswald: Welcome to the Weather Whys Podcast, I’m your host Ed Oswald from The Weather Station Experts. In this episode, we’ll take a look at this year’s crazy weather and why 2024 will start just as crazy. I’m glad you could join us, let’s get started.
Again, thanks so much for joining us. This is The Weather Whys Podcast Episode 1, our first “official” episode. With the end of the year coinciding with the first episode of our podcast, we thought it logical to start out with a year in review. And what a year it was weatherwise.
If you were out west, you’ll remember this sound from last winter: [sound of rain falling] Rain, and lots of it, fell across much of the Southwest to start the year, even New York City by year’s end had its most rainfall in a day ever. But much of the year it felt like the world was on fire, with record breaking heat. Researchers believe the three warmest days in the past 150,000 years happened this summer, spurring a wildfire season that was unprecedented in the number of Americans it affected.
While California’s rainy winter kept their fire season to a minimum, unusually dry weather across Hawaii and Eastern Canada spurred massive wildfires. Thick wildfire smoke choked off major eastern US cities affecting millions, but this list is just a small part of what happened. Worldwide, 2023 will be the hottest year ever. So what drove all this craziness? El Niño. For years, we have been dealing with La Niña, which are cooler than normal waters in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. While La Niña brings her own set of wild weather, it’s far less severe and far less widespread.
El Niño is the opposite, where the equatorial Pacific waters are warmer than normal. The 2023 event is what’s called a “super El Niño,” meaning water temperatures are much warmer. . And although we’re drastically simplifying it, warmer waters make it easier for water to evaporate, which in turn puts more water vapor in the air. This is partially the reason for many of the extreme rainfall events we’ve seen worldwide.
On the flip side, this excess rain must be balanced out with excess dryness elsewhere. El Niños are infamous for widespread heat and drought as well. And then on top of this, there’s climate change. The world has already warmed at nearly a degree Celsius since the 1960s. The 2023 El Niño added a half degree on top of that.
The result was a preview of a world where 1.5 degrees of warming isn’t a record, but a daily reality. while this El Niño event may be peaking, weather patterns will continue to be affected. As winter arrives in the Northern Hemisphere, summer begins in the south. This El Niño event didn’t start until April, so the Southern Hemisphere has yet to have its El Niño summer. Summer will coincide with peak strength, so the effects will likely be significant.
Australia experiences extreme heat and drought during El Niños, often accompanied by significant wildfires, but we’ll save that for a future episode. So what were the five biggest weather events of this crazy year?
We’ll have more about that after the break.
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Ed Oswald: Thanks for staying with us. As I said before the break, we’re counting down the biggest weather stories of the year.
Starting out in January, the atmospheric river events in California certainly belong on our list. I’m not going to spend too much time on this as its subject of our next episode, but California’s years long drought ended in spectacular fashion. This certainly was the big news story for the beginning of 2023. Although it started in December, as late as March portions of California were still dealing with heavy rains and snows.
But while rainy weather is normal in California during the winter, elsewhere winter was anything but. Some Northeast cities saw little of any measurable snowfall, with temperatures averaging well above normal. In fact, Philadelphia went an entire winter without more than one inch of snow in a single snow storm, a streak that now has lasted nearly two years.
Here at our weather station, the average winter high was 47 degrees. While that might seem cold to some of you, it’s well above normal here by about five degrees or so. The weather did calm down a bit during the spring. However, things began to dry out and we began watching a flash drought spread across the Northeast and Eastern Canada.
Flash droughts occur when weather patterns get “stuck,” causing an area to receive an extended period of little rainfall. That was the case here. We received just .22″ of rain in May and a little over an inch in June, continuing a dry start to the year partially due to the rainy weather out west. This set the stage for a memorable event in June for much of the Northeast.
The same dry conditions in the Northeast were occurring in Eastern Canada as well, but much more severe. By late spring, tens of thousands of acres of Canadian forest were burning out of control. An unusually strong cold front swept across the Northeast in the first part of the month. Instead of just cool, dry air. These Northeast winds also brought the smoke behind it so thick that it rolled in like fog. Smoke filled the air in New York City, and skyscrapers disappeared into the thick haze.
Here in Pennsylvania, it wasn’t much better: for two days straight smoke was in the air thick enough that you could even see it inside the house. But the summer had more in store. By July, sea surface temperatures in the Florida keys rose above 100 degrees for the first time in recorded history after weeks of relentless heat and little rain, and this is at a time when afternoon thunderstorms are typically a daily occurrence.
These warm waters made rapidly intensifying tropical cyclones a constant risk, some in places you wouldn’t expect. Even in the Eastern Pacific water temperatures were running much above normal, and that set the stage for a tropical storm in Southern California of all places in August. Listeners on the West Coast know that rain is a rarity during the summer months, much less a land-falling tropical system.
While Hillary weakened to a tropical storm before making landfall, its effects were extreme. For the first time ever, the Southern California coast was placed under a tropical storm warning. One to three inches of rain fell across much as sound on California, with as much as a foot in the mountains. Death Valley received an entire year’s worth of rainfall in just a single day.
While rain in the summer is a rarity and arguably a blessing for a state where water comes at a premium, it was too much at once. Flooding was widespread, and damage was extensive.
But the Pacific Ocean wasn’t done yet. October’s hurricane Otis was memorable for its rapid strengthening, which even surprised meteorologists. For much of the time after it formed on October 15th through the 22nd, Otis wasn’t even named, or even a tropical depression. In fact, several times it looked like the storm would dissipate altogether. But late on the 22nd, it finally gained tropical storm status, and its name Otis, starting a historic intensification phase.
At the same time, wind currents were directing Otis northwestward towards the Mexican coast. By the afternoon of the 23rd, it was already a major category three hurricane with winds of 125 miles an hour. Otis continued to strengthen through the 25th when it reached category five status with winds of 165 miles an hour. It maintained this strength through landfall in the resort city of Acapulco.
Otis is the first Pacific category five hurricane to make landfall, and by far the costliest: damage was estimated at $16 billion, predominantly in and around Acapulco. Then there’s the strengthening: 115 miles per hour in 24 hours made it the second fastest strengthening hurricane in recorded history, and that’s anywhere on the planet.
There’s many more, but we’re running out of time for this episode. We’d like to hear from you. If you agree or have other events to share, email us at [email protected]. We might share your feedback in a future episode.
Ed Oswald: You have just listened to the Weather Whys Podcast. I’m your host, Ed Oswald. Weather Whys is a production of The Weather Station Experts and Oz Media. Today’s episode was produced by Derek Oswald and myself from our studios here in West Lawn, Pennsylvania. If you’d like to learn more about Weather Whys visit Weather Whys that’s W-H-Y- S.show. On our website, you can listen to this episode at any past episodes and get in touch. We’d love to hear from you. Don’t forget to subscribe to Weather Whys to get the latest episodes. As soon as we release them, you can find those links to Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google, and more on our website as well. That’s all for today. Be sure to join us again next time, when we take a look at California’s megadrought. Thank you for listening.