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El Nino Winter: What It Means for Oregon Coast, Storms, Snow

Published 10/18/23 at 6:12 a.m.
y Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

El Nino Winter: What It Means for Oregon Coast, Storms, Snow

(Oregon Coast) – With meteorologists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) saying this is an El Nino year, that can mean some weather patterns are more likely than others for winter. (Above: Ben Jones Bridge near Depoe Bay - Oregon Coast Beach Connection)

Yet what does that mean for winter on the Oregon coast? For the rest of Oregon?

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El Nino - according to NOAA and the National Weather Service (NWS) under its umbrella - is a warmer pattern that occurs here in much of the Pacific Northwest. What El Nino does is different for different parts of the world.

Yet exact results are difficult to pinpoint, although it does trend towards a drier, milder winter for this region. None of that is guaranteed, as even many El Nino years have produced some mighty snowstorms for western Oregon, such as late December of 2009. By and large, however, that was a mild winter, and the snow event didn't last long, returning to milder conditions after it was over.

The short answer for snow is that it's unlikely to produce a major event, but meteorologists are saying it could well create a few, perhaps even brief, ice or snow events.

Technically, it's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, or ENSO.

ENSO winters tend to track warmer up here and in Canada, but California tends to be wetter.

How is that going to affect the Oregon coast? Will the beaches see major tidal events that create lots of erosion? After all, that's half the fun of winter on the coastline as sand levels can reveal some remarkable stuff.

Unfortunately, there doesn't seem a solid way to really predict that, but it could be on track for that.

Instead, the most the NWS is going to say now is that the coastline will be warmer. Oregon Coast Beach Connection talked to Brian Nieuwenhuis of the Medford office of the NWS, and he said there's an interesting split trend.

“El Nino doesn't have a strong signal for things along the southern Oregon coast, but does have a slight inclination for relatively warmer temperatures along the north coast,” he said. “In terms of precipitation, there have been both wet and dry years during El Ninos, and there is no clear trend either way. In other words, and on average, the Oregon coast tends to be a bit warmer than normal, but could go either way for precipitation.”

Big, sand-eating storm waves may take a bit of a swing at Washington and Oregon beaches, however.

“The preferred storm track tends to shift south during El Nino years, which can bring more storms to central and southern California,” Nieuwenhuis said. “There are some indications that this can lead to more and larger swell/surf events along the U.S. West Coast, but I don't know of any definitive studies that point to Oregon impacts specifically.”

Twice this week there have already been some early storm waves and swell sets that posed sneaker wave dangers, with the likelihood of some erosion. Whether that bodes well as a trend or it's just a one-off, initial bang for the season will remain to be seen.

It's interesting to note that some of the Oregon coast and Washington coast's biggest erosional events took place in years when there was no El Nino or La Nina. Those years are true wild cards.

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Andre' GW Hagestedt is editor, owner and primary photographer / videographer of Oregon Coast Beach Connection, an online publication that sees over 1 million pageviews per month. He is also author of several books about the coast.

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