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El Nino warms up for a return visit

October 02, 1997

By GUY FLETCHER

Staff Writer

The last time the powerful, far-reaching meteorological phenomenon known as El Nino formed in the Pacific Ocean, Hagerstown was treated to its largest snow storm in history.

In fact, each of the past three winters influenced by El Nino -1996, 1993 and 1983 - were highlighted by at least one snow storm of more than 15 inches, according to local weather records.

The National Weather Service is not taking an official stance on any possible local impact from El Nino, which is once again churning in the Pacific, but agency meteorologist Jim Vaughn said history should be respected.

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"If I had to say yes or no to the chance of one snow storm of more than 15 inches this winter, I'd have to say yes," said Vaughn, of Smithsburg.

El Nino begins with the warming of waters in the eastern Pacific, which starts a chain of events that can alter jet streams and steer storms throughout the world. It's name, which is Spanish for Christ child, is related to that fact it often appeared near Christmas time in Peru every three to seven years.

Past El Ninos generally have brought warmer, drier conditions to the northern United States and colder, wetter weather to the South, and its impact can be felt as far away as Africa.

"El Nino turns the weather topsy-turvy all over the world," said Bill O'Toole, weather prognosticator for the Hagers-Town Town and Country Almanack.

O'Toole said this region's tendency to get its worst winter weather from the south makes it particularly vulnerable to some big storms during an El Nino year. But he believes the winter will be milder overall.

As an example, he cited the winter of 1983, the last time there was an El Nino as large as the current one. Other than one storm that dumped 25 inches of snow in the area, the winter was rather ordinary. The temperature was just below the seasonal average of 32.1 degrees and total snowfall of 30.2 inches - even with the one major storm - barely eclipsed the seasonal average in Hagerstown of 29.7 inches.

"We had a mild winter," O'Toole said.

But because the current El Nino is so large, covering an area larger than the United States, he and others are wary about predicting the impact it could have here.

"It's something that everybody is going to be watching, to see what happens," said Hagerstown weather observer Greg Keefer.

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