West Texas is known for extreme weather, but instead of thunderstorms and tornadoes, this year is all about the transition from excessive drought to excessive rainfall. While these drastic changes may seem typical for West Texas, this pattern is actually controlled by large-scale climate cycles called El Nino and La Nina. Texas Tech professor and renowned climate scientist, Katharine Hayhoe, says that it’s one of the most important climate driven cycles in West Texas.
“El Nino is one of the most important natural cycles for us here in West Texas,” says Hayhoe. “When we have an El Nino year it tends to be wetter than average in the winter and spring which leads to some pretty good crop yields in the summer. When we have a La Nina though it tends to be a lot drier than average and the last time we had a really big La Nina was in 2011 and 2012. That caused a drought that was so severe. There were damages about $12 billion in livestock and crop losses across our region.”
Right now we are transitioning into an El Nino, which helped eliminate much of this year’s drought, and we look to get even wetter this winter.
“At the end of the summer in August, 78% of Texas was in drought, and then we had the wettest Fall on record. So we have this natural whiplash effect, back and forth, from wet to dry. This winter we expect to see continued wet conditions because we’re heading into a mild El Nino. Not a really big one, but a mild one which should bring us a lot of extra moisture during winter and spring just when we need it.”
Although we’re expected to have a wet winter, this does not necessarily mean the precipitation will be in the form of snow.
“So this winter we expect to also be warmer than average due to natural variability as well as our long term warming trend. Winters have actually warmed faster than any other season here in West Texas. So even though we expect more precipitation over winter and spring, it doesn’t necessarily mean a ton of snow, it just means wet conditions.”