Chilly El Niņo may bring severe weather to area


Brittany Bonner, left, and Alex Duplessis, center, both seniors at the University of Florida shop for heaters at Target to help fight the recent cold temperatures.

Aaron E. Daye
Published: Thursday, January 7, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 6, 2010 at 10:22 p.m.

While the cold temperatures are on everyone's minds, forecasters say that's just one signature of an El Nino winter. Severe weather is another, and the experts tell people to remain vigilant in the weeks to come.

El Nino is a weather phenomenon in which Pacific Ocean waters near the equator are warmer than normal, triggering a change in global weather patterns.

Plain and simple, El Nino means roller-coaster weather in Florida: cool, wet winters and severe thunderstorms from January through early March. Strong El Nino years sometimes feature March deluges and spring droughts.

On Feb. 2, 2007, during a mild El Nino, a twister plowed through northern Lake County just before dawn, slamming Paisley and Lady Lake. In all, 21 people died amid the twister's 21-mile path.

And in 1998 - late night on Feb. 22 and early Feb. 23 - several severe tornadoes slammed Florida in the state's worst outbreak. The twisters killed 42, most in a RV park near Orlando. That year featured a strong El Nino.

That 1998 outbreak was followed by the wettest March on record throughout most of Central Florida. The spring featured one of the worst droughts followed by the state's worst wildfire outbreak.

Weather forecasters say that this year's El Nino is considered moderate - not as strong as 1998 but stronger than 1995 and 2007. Another year featuring a moderate El Nino was 1993, during which the Storm of the Century struck the East Coast on March 12-13, resulting in 13 deaths and millions of dollars in damage in the Big Bend area of Florida alone.

Steve Letro, meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service in Jacksonville, said El Nino sometimes causes weather patterns to remain in place for days - and sometimes weeks, like lately.

"Very often [during El Nino years] in the winter we get locked in a very warm pattern as well," he said. This year, a bitter cold pattern happened to lock into place.

Letro called the long-lasting winter blast a perfect merger of two cold fronts. But the cold weather might be the least of everyone's worries, when compared with the possibility of severe weather.

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