Test Your Weather IQ with Our El Nino Quiz

Which of the following best describes El Nino:

  • Your headquarters for chili con queso
  • Bolivia's answer to the Macarena
  • Mexico's answer to Barney
  • Al Roker's answer to a slow news day
  • The invasion of warm surface water from the equatorial region of the Pacific basin to the eastern Pacific and along the coasts of Peru, Ecuador, and Northern Chile.

Translated literally, El Nino means:

  • Kitty litter
  • The Christ Child
  • The office is closing at noon.
  • Kroger sold out of milk three hours ago.

Forecasters have determined the effects of El Nino in our area will be:

  • disastrous
  • benign
  • inconclusive
  • over reported

It's not the heat. It's the humidity.

And it may not be El Nino we have to worry about. It may be La Nina.

That, at least, is the informed opinion of University of Tennessee climatologist Dr. Joanne Logan. She's taken a long, hard look at the jet stream and the flip-flopping pressure zones, and she's not impressed. Not this year, anyway.

Oh, she's not denying the floods in South America and the drought in Australia. But this is a local paper. We want local news. How many snow days? How much kitty litter in the trunk of the car? How many shelves of canned chili?

How much weather hype can we reasonably expect here?


Local forecasters are unanimous on one point. If we have a bad winter, it will be chalked up to El Nino. So will a mild winter. So will anything in between.

"It's almost more of an art than a science, predicting weather," says Logan. And it rises to the level of high art in El Nino seasons, which occur every three to seven years, causing climate chaos. This is because prevailing winds usually blow from east to west, from the coast of South America towards Australia and Indonesia. In El Nino years, however, the winds die down, causing water temperatures in the Eastern Pacific to rise as much as 10 degrees. Before 1950, this phenomenon was only of interest to the local South American fishermen. Over the past 20 years, scientists have studied El Nino's proposed connections to climate anomalies that occur before, during, and after an El Nino event. Flooding in areas of South America and droughts in Indonesia and Australia are common during El Nino years.

La Nina, on the bother hand ("it's the anti-El Nino," Logan explains), does not necessarily follow El Nino. It may skip a season. While El Nino produces a dramatic warming of Pacific waters, La Nina is a sudden cooling.

"It almost looks like La Nina might cause more weather effects in Tennessee than El Nino," Logan says. "Some experts say that because this particular El Nino has peaked and is tapering off quickly, we could have a dramatic swing the other way—towards a La Nina." What would that mean for East Tennessee? Hard to say. "That situation has only happened three times in the years weather has been systematically reported here. To base a prediction on something that has only occurred three times would be really stretching it."

On the other hand, there have been 20 recorded El Ninos—which should give us a pretty good idea of what to expect.

Except that it doesn't. Some of the worst weather in the Knoxville area has hit during non-Nino years. The blizzard of '93 was a case in point. So was that January day in '85 when Knoxville was the coldest place in the U.S. at 24 below. The ice storm of 1982, on the other hand, happened during an El Nino.

Logan's survey of past El Nino years in Knoxville shows a slight increase in snowfall in January. But slight, she says, is the operative word—"only a few inches."

"We went back and looked at the last seven El Ninos, and what we came up with is that you can just about have anything," says Jerry McDuffie, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service office in Morristown. "If you live on the Gulf Coast, you can figure on more rain than normal. Parts of Australia and Indonesia go into drought. These things happen with every El Nino.

"But Tennessee seems to be in the middle between the wetter southeast and the drier north."

Information posted on the National Weather Service Web site (www.srh.noaa.gov/mrx/) underlines the unpredictability of local El Nino behavior.

"There appears to be no definite or clear-cut effect for the weather across our area due to El Nino," writes Joanne Labounty. "Four of the last six El Ninos had above normal precipitation totaled for the entire El Nino period. But there were dry to very dry periods during those years as well. It appears that the type of weather we can expect this winter and in the months that follow is like any other year across East Tennessee. Anything can happen."

Local meteorologists agree that there's more than enough ambiguity to go around.

"The thing about El Nino is that it's been going on for hundreds of years," says Matt Hinkin of WATE TV. "I don't think it's anything to panic about. I've had many more calls about it than in past El Nino years, and that's because it's been publicized more. And it's been publicized more because we know more about it."

But while scientists may have more sophisticated methods of tracking weather systems, misconceptions still abound.

"People automatically think we're going to have a bad winter," says Hinkin. "We could go through the whole winter and have very little snow and then get a big storm and everyone will say it's a bad winter. If you look at weather over years and years, it seems to even itself out. We may go through bad years, then we'll have mild years. I will say the big snows seem to happen in odd years—1993, 1995. And '97 is an odd year."

Scott Blalock of WVLT TV says people tend to mistake El Nino for one big storm.

"It really doesn't have anything to do with one storm," Blalock says. "It means that a body of water is abnormally warm over a huge area. That influences where the weather patterns are. It's as if I came into your house and rearranged the furniture. This type of arrangement is conducive to more big storms, more wet weather."

So does that mean we're looking down the barrel of a long, hard winter here?

"When you say a hard winter, a lot of folks think of bitter cold and snow," he says. "I don't think it will be harsh cold, but rainy and drizzly and long, with some periods of ice and snow."

Blalock's heard his share of weird theories about El Nino—everything from the stock market plunge to increased psychic powers attributed to the weather system.

"People get tense and look for answers," he says. "What better place to turn than Mother Nature? It's certainly not us; we're all perfect. It must be the weather."

"It's a global event, a regular cycle of warming and cooling Pacific waters," says Todd Howell of WBIR TV. "This is an unusually strong warming year. El Nino provides more moisture for the Southern U.S. If you have more moisture, you have a greater potential for increased precipitation."

So what's a weather watcher to do?

Helen Lane, venerable weather prophet of the Cumberland Plateau, has spent decades tracking the seasons through signs in nature. Poor health prevented her from filing her annual predictions with the Crossville Chronicle, but friend Janie Holloway interviewed Lane earlier this month and reported her forecast in the paper.

Six heavy fogs in August point to six heavy snows, Lane says.

Nino-Shmeeno. Stock up on kitty litter and chili. Looks like a long one.