EMU professor talks impact of El Nino

According to Eastern Michigan University Professor Thomas Kovacs winter this year will be different from last year’s because of the El Nino weather system. The Eastern Michigan University environmental science and society program professor and coordinator said this year’s El Nino is one of the three strongest on record in the past 65 years.

“Researchers don’t have a good handle on this phenomena, even though it is actively being researched,” Kovacs said. “They thought this weather was going to happen last year.”

El Nino, which translates to “little boy,” often brings wet weather at the end of December in Peru. The phenomenon happens when the surface water of the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean is warmed. While global warming is not a direct effect of El Nino, the warmer water stops deeper, cooler water from surfacing. This affects the average global temperature.

According to Kovacs, Michigan will experience the following affects:

  • Great Lakes temperatures will be warmer than normal going into spring. There currently is not any ice on the Great Lakes, which is unusual for this time of year, especially in areas such as Mackinac Island.
  • Warmer waters are hurting native species, causing an increase in the spread of invasive species which leads to conditions that promote algae blooms.
  • The warmer weather affects natural gas prices—supply and demand—so prices go down because we’re not using as much heat.
  • Less snow means less plowing, which results in less salting and less damage to the roads. We will, however, be subject to more frequent freeze-thaw cycles.
  • Dry soil can cause drought conditions to form, harming natural vegetation and farming, which requires water for planting. Snow keeps water stored while plants are dormant throughout the winter. Melting snow waters the plants in the spring.
  • Apple and cherry trees may start to flower in the early spring. If premature budding occurs, cold periods with late spring frost would kill the flowers of fruit-bearing trees.
  • Less snow means less skiing, snowmobiling and other winter sports, which would affect tourism.

His research is focused on the use of satellite-based instrumentation to aid weather forecasting. Kovacs’s students have researched atmospheric and environmental science specializing in severe weather with applications of satellite remote sensing and distributed observation platforms.

Kovacs, previously worked at Hampton University and was a full time contractor for NASA Langley on the CALIPSO satellite mission. He is now testing an approach to teach the Next Generation Science Standards to middle school students through the MI-STAR program. The program is a $5 million grant project from the Dow Foundation.


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