Could the Historic Southern Plains Flooding be a Result of the Developing El Niño?

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

Significant flooding occurring in the Oklahoma City metro on May 6, 2015 . Credit: Maria Molina

Significant flooding occurring in the Oklahoma City metro on May 6, 2015 . Credit: Maria Molina

By Maria Molina, C+S ’15

While most of my classmates from Climate and Society attend their exciting new summer internships or begin their breakthrough research topics this summer, either of which could lead them to their dream careers, my summer internship is at a place I have been for several years now and actually inspired me to take the path to pursue my graduate degree in the first place. I’ll be working fulltime as a meteorologist for the Fox News Channel.

Working in cable media has often provided me a front-row seat to natural disasters around the world unfolding live right before my eyes, including events like Superstorm Sandy and the April 25-28, 2011 tornado outbreak. During these years, many weather events either shattered or challenged the record books and the conversation about the cause of these events heated up rooms more than the greenhouse effect could ever hope to. It is these extreme events that inspired me to learn more about climate. Over the past several weeks, another extreme weather event has been underway and with it, the climate connection conversation.

May 2015 was officially the wettest single month on record in Texas and Oklahoma. A persistent upper level pattern created a storm track over both states, and a series of storms teamed up to crush monthly rainfall records.

According to the Oklahoma Climatological Survey, the May rainfall total averaged across all of Oklahoma totaled 14.4 inches, beating the previous wettest month by nearly 4 inches! According to the Office of the State Climatologist at Texas A&M University, Texas picked up a statewide average of 8.81 inches of rain in May. These unprecedented rainfall totals triggered massive floods and claimed lives. The rain and flash flood runoff inundated the Red River as it reached its highest level in 70 years. The media ran wild with the news as they aired live helicopter rescues and showed images of the swollen Red River engulfing homes in its path.

Molina_OKCFloodNot only did I witness these events through the eyes of a meteorologist working in the news industry, but my frequent trips to Oklahoma City where my fiancé lives offered me a personal perspective to the extent of the impacts and what it really was like for residents of the area. Floodplains were saturated with water, roads became impassable and cars were stranded in feet of water on Interstate 35.

Oklahoma City also set a new record, with May 2015 being the all-time wettest month on record with 19.48 inches of rain recorded. Attempting to visit this part of the country posed its own challenges. During one of my flights into Oklahoma City, I looked out of the window of the plane as we approached the Oklahoma City airport and saw a massive storm over the city. The flight was subsequently diverted to nearby Tulsa, OK, and as it turned out, a tornado was ripping through the Oklahoma City area at that time. My fiancé’s home sustained damage from the tornado and flood event.

While it’s possibly too early to attribute the historic flood event across the Southern Plains to any climate signal without raising eyebrows and rolling eyes, it is important to point out a very prominent climate oscillation taking shape upstream in the largest ocean of the world. During May 2015, sea surface temperature (SST) anomalies increased across the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean, with the largest anomalies in the eastern Pacific. That’s a telltale sign of El Niño.

The Climate Prediction Center predicts that there is a 90% chance that El Niño will continue through the Northern Hemisphere fall 2015, and around an 85% chance it will last through the 2015-16 winter. A consensus of forecasters lightly favors the continued development of El Niño into a strong El Niño event.

While temperature and precipitation impacts associated with El Niño are expected to remain minimal during the Northern Hemisphere summer, one must ask if the strengthening El Niño pattern during the month of May could have contributed to the anomalously wet May in the Southern Plains.

Could the increasing SSTs have contributed to an increased moisture supply for the Southern Plains? Could the anomalous low-level westerly winds over the equatorial Pacific have raised the odds of storms targeting the Southern Plains? I hope to find answers to some of these questions this summer through an independent study I am completing in the International Research Institute for Climate and Society. And El Niño’s hands don’t just reach to the Southern Plains. As El Niño continues to develop this summer, it will likely contribute to a lower-than-normal Atlantic hurricane season and above-normal hurricane seasons in the central and eastern Pacific hurricane basins.

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