Dispatch New Mexico: Brace yourself, it could be a tough winter

We’re still a couple of months away from the first official day of winter (Dec. 22), but forecasters are already saying it’ll be colder and wetter than normal in New Mexico, so be prepared to bundle up.

It’s another El Niño year, which means that the ocean-to-atmosphere interaction of temperatures, especially in the Pacific Ocean near the equator, will influence U.S. weather conditions. And since this year’s El Niño is a whopper, this winter could be particularly brutal.

“This year’s El Niño, among the strongest on record, is expected to influence weather and climate patterns this winter by impacting the position of the Pacific jet stream,” says the federal agency that monitors incoming weather patterns for our nation in its winter forecast. The NOAA goes on to say that “wetter-than-average conditions” will likely cover the southern portion of the contiguous U.S. from central and southern California all the way across to Florida, and even up the East Coast to southern New England.

The wet summer we had this year is a strong signal that NOAA’s long-range forecast is on target. In fact, during the deluge of precipitation that hit most of the state earlier this month, I heard at least one TV meteorologist saying it was the result of conditions created by this year’s El Niño.

So, while no one can accurately predict the weather 100 percent of the time, we’d best prepare for a brutal winter. Especially New Mexicans who live in the rural areas of our big and sparsely populated state.

The dangers are many: cold temperatures that can cause frostbite and hypothermia; ice accumulations that can knock out power and heat; snow that stalls transportation and strands motorists; and winds that can intensify all of the above. Most of us can survive the elements, but others—particularly the unprepared—can face life-threatening circumstances when winter weather becomes extreme.

Severe winter weather also has an impact on the economy. It can slow private enterprise to a crawl, though it often drives public utilities and other services into overtime. In rural areas, it’s a threat to farming and ranching, as livestock must be cared for, heating sources like wood and propane must be secured, and isolated people must be protected or rescued.

When living in the country, the elements have a much greater impact on day-to-day life. When the weather’s bad, it’s a lot more intense.

And of course, with climate change, the new normal may indeed be the abnormally extremes in weather conditions—and whether we want to admit it or not, it appears to already be happening.

On a global scale, scientists are saying the earth is consistently warming up, and the data back them up. Based on a month-to-month comparison, NOAA reports, 2015 is en route to becoming the warmest year in recorded history (dating back to 1880, when such records started being kept). There’s no longer a reasonable way to deny that global warming is indeed taking place.

But that doesn’t simply translate into hotter temperatures, as weather patterns dictate regional conditions. Warmer air impacts regional weather in a variety of ways, and it often creates more extreme weather events. Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, and even last week’s incredible dumping of rain in the western Gulf Coast states (as a result of the Category 5 Hurricane Patricia) are evidence that our storms are getting bigger and more powerful each season.

Here in New Mexico, the weather can turn at a moment’s notice, and extreme conditions are not uncommon. What’s changing is the long-term outlook. We’re already getting warmer, and drier—and we should expect it to get even more intense in the years ahead.

Thankfully, we’re emerging from one of the two worst droughts in recorded history, but that doesn’t mean everything’s OK. In the weeks ahead, we might just be facing a winter that will wake us up to the brutal effects of climate change. And it seems that all we can do is be prepare for the worst, hope for the best, and wait to see what happens.

Tom McDonald is founder of the New Mexico Community News Exchange and editor of the Roswell Daily Record. He may be reached at tmcdonald@gazettemediaservices.com or tmcdonald@rdrnews.com.