State Park Access, Restaurant Workers And Civil Service Reforms, El Niño And Wisconsin’s Winter

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Weather forecasters are predicting a stronger than usual El Niño this year, and that could affect our Wisconsin winter. A climate scientist gives us an idea of what we can expect. We also hear from a guest speaking out for restaurant workers on the topic of civil service reforms, and look at a new bill that would provide free state park access to Wisconsin’s fourth graders and their families.

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  • El Niño 'Loads The Dice' For A Warmer Wisconsin Winter

    Much of Wisconsin is experiencing a very warm autumn so far, with temperatures higher than average in both September and October. One factor that might be influencing these balmy conditions is El Niño, a recurring global weather pattern that can result in warmer winters for Wisconsin.

    Daniel Vimont, an associate professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said that El Niño typically reappears every few years.

    “El Niño is a climatic phenomenon that occurs every three to seven years,” said Vimont. “We’re experiencing one right now, it’s a big event this year.”

    El Niño conditions develop when the waters of the tropical Pacific Ocean, near the equator, warm by about 2 to 4 degrees Celsius. That’s a lot of heat, given the amount of water involved.

    “This is a huge phenomenon,” said Vimont.

    The counterpart to El Niño is La Niña, which develops when the tropical Pacific cools. Together, this cycle is known as the El Niño Southern Oscillation, or ENSO. That name “recognizes that the ocean and atmosphere work together to produce these kinds of conditions,” said Vimont. There are also ENSO-neutral years, when conditions in the tropical Pacific hew closer to the average.

    An El Niño event usually gets started around March to May, but the observation of precursor conditions during those months doesn’t necessarily mean the phenomenon will fully develop by the end of the year. That was the case in 2014, when an El Niño was initially forecast, but didn’t end up developing. In 2015, though, conditions in the tropical Pacific have persisted and the resulting El Niño is shaping up to be historic in scale.

    In equatorial regions, El Niño is already having a profound effect on weather. In the Andean region of South America, there can be quite a bit more precipitation, which can cause issues like landslides if the rain is particularly heavy. Meanwhile, conditions are much drier than typical in the western Pacific, which is making it easier for wildfires to spread in Indonesia.

    “El Niño has a big effect globally, and it does have an affect here in North America and the United States as well,” said Vimont.

    The shift in Pacific Ocean temperatures has a strong influence on where tropical precipitation is likely, which in turn can affect the location of the jet stream over the U.S. common weather patterns during El Niño years include the potential for wetter and cooler than average conditions in the southern U.S., and possibly drier and warmer weather in the Pacific Northwest and Upper Midwest.

    Vimont emphasizes that an El Niño does not guarantee those conditions though.

    “I like thinking about loading the dice,” he said. “Any year could be different than any other year. But when an El Niño comes along, the dice are loaded for warmer conditions in the Midwest.”

    So far, Vimont explained, there have only been six major El Niño events that have been studied to a serious degree. During those periods, three saw warmer than average conditions in the Midwest, while the other three did not see significant temperature changes. The sample size is simply too small to make forecasts with a greater degree of certainty.

    Numerous other factors besides El Niño can influence winter weather in Wisconsin, explained Vimont, such as the polar vortex conditions that struck the state in early 2014.

    A warmer winter due to El Niño can result in multiple secondary effects around Wisconsin, said Vimont, though these relationships retain uncertainty as well due to the limited data available. For example, a shorter length of lake ice cover in Wisconsin has been observed. El Niño can also affect the amount of precipitation in the form of snow, and how long it remains unmelted. Warmer conditions could result in less snow, but again, no forecast is completely certain.

    Vimont said that the relationship between El Niño and warmer temperatures driven by broader climate change is very complex.

    “Our understanding of how climate change impacts El Niño is kind of in its infancy at this point,” he said. “There are studies that suggest that El Niño events will become more intense due to climate change, and there are other studies that show that the impact of El Niño on the global atmosphere will become more intense as well — so, a stronger relationship between El Niño and, say, warm weather here or wet weather to the south.”

    However, because each ENSO cycle is different, and there have been so few El Niño events studied so far, it could be hundreds of years before climatologists pinpoint specific interactions between the phenomenon and global climate change.

    “El Niño has a huge impact on our temperature,” said Vimont. “I am confident that his year will be the warmest year on record globally.”

  • New Bill Would Provide Free State Park Access For Wisconsin Fourth Graders And Their Families

    New legislation being introduced in Wisconsin would provide all fourth grade students and their families with free admission to Wisconsin’s state parks. The author of the bill talks about why she’s proposing it, and what she sees as the value of making state parks more accessible to all kids.

  • Civil Service Reform And Restaurant Workers

    Our guest food writer makes the case that testing for aptitude is better than using a resume system for civil service hires and looks at the case of Paul Ryan, who worked in a restaurant before becoming Speaker of the House.

  • El Niño And Winter In Wisconsin 2016

    A University of Wisconsin climatologist shares projections for how El Niño will affect Wisconsin this coming winter.

Episode Credits

  • Rob Ferrett Host
  • Veronica Rueckert Host
  • Galen Druke Producer
  • Chris Malina Producer
  • Veronica Rueckert Producer
  • Dan Vimont Guest
  • Sen. Melissa Agard Guest
  • Kyle Cherek Guest

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