Fort Worth

El Niño could make for a wet – and icy – winter in DFW

Downtown Fort Worth was quiet and mostly vacant on this Feburary day, when ice blanketed the streets. El Nino is expected to make for a wet North Texas winter in 2015-16.
Downtown Fort Worth was quiet and mostly vacant on this Feburary day, when ice blanketed the streets. El Nino is expected to make for a wet North Texas winter in 2015-16. Star-Telegram

The first reminder that winter is fast approaching will arrive this weekend.

A cold front will move in early Saturday and send temperatures plunging to the point to where the Dallas-Fort Worth area could see its first freeze by Sunday morning.

If it happens, that would be right on schedule since Nov. 22 is the average first freeze date for North Texas.

While this first taste of frigid weather should be brief — highs should be back in the 60s by Tuesday — it is a sign that winter is on the way.

And if the strongest El Niño on record holds true, North Texas can expect a wet winter. The three-month outlook released Thursday by the Climate Prediction Center shows a wetter than normal winter with cooler than normal temperatures.

“It’s still unclear if we’ll have a snowier winter but the law of averages would tend to have you think it’s bound to happen with some of these storms,” said Tom Bradshaw, meteorologist in charge for the National Weather Service office in Fort Worth.

Bradshaw said storm tracks that typically happen during El Niño winters can prevent Arctic air from plunging south so “we don’t quite have as much confidence” about how many outbreaks North Texas will see this winter.

WFAA meteorologist Greg Fields also said the odds are probably greater that North Texas could see more ice or snow.

“The more storms we have, the more likely we'll see our share of winter weather,” Fields said. “But so far we haven't had the big pushes of cold air moving in. Personally, I'll take the rain over the snow and ice. Only time will tell.”

‘We’re not going to be dry’

There is a definitely a correlation between El Niño winters and snow, but those wanting a winter wonderland shouldn’t get too excited.

DFW’s 5 snowiest winters occurred in a weak or moderate El Niño.

Apparently, a weak El Niño can produce more snow than a strong one, said State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon.

“The five snowiest winters since 1914 in DFW occurred during an El Niño but they were all weak to moderate El Niños,” Nielsen-Gammon said. “There has not yet been a strong El Niño that produced more than 4 inches of snow in DFW.”

But there isn’t the same correlation for ice storms.

“To have ice, you don’t have extremely cold temperatures like with snow,” Nielsen-Gammon said. “You just have to get a little below freezing to have ice.”

Whether snow and ice materialize, a rainy winter is probably a safe bet since weekly El Niño index is “as strong as its ever been,” Nielsen-Gammon said.

“It certainly means we’re not going to be dry,” he said.

El Niño likely means wet weather “from California to the Carolinas” with the biggest benefit probably for the drought-plagued southwestern United States, Nielsen-Gammon said.

But there may be a price for all of this rain.

A strong El Niño is usually followed by its sister weather phenomenon, La Niña, that brings dry conditions to Texas.

“By this time next year, we may be in our next drought,” Nielsen-Gammon said.

We certainly are aware of the El Niño phenemenon and what it may do for our winter weather.

TxDOT spokesman Val Lopez

Prepping for the worst

Given the winter outbreaks of the last two years, the Texas Department of Transportation already has stocked 36,000 tons of salt, sand and salt based deicers. Workers have the ability to make brine, which can be used to pre-treat roads ahead of storms, said TxDOT spokesman Val Lopez.

Both TxDOT and the North Texas Tollway Authority have already had drills for winter weather during the late summer and fall.

“We certainly are aware of the El Niño phenomenon and what it may do for our winter weather,” Lopez said.

Both Tarrant County and the Fort Worth Office of Emergency Management held a seminar on Wednesday to plan for winter.

Juan Ortiz, Fort Worth’s emergency management coordinator, said entities were told to get ready for ice and snow.

“I think the chances are greater we're going to have more ice this winter so we go ahead and plan and prepare like it's going to happen, “ Ortiz said. “Given the forecast, that’s the most prudent thing to do.”

The reality is we're not Boston...

Juan Ortiz, Fort Worth Emergency Management coordinator

After ice storms during the last two winters, Ortiz said North Texas cities and counties must also be realistic. There’s only so many resources available to clear roads and sidewalks.

“The reality is we're not Boston, we're not Chicago, we’re not Fargo, North Dakota,” Ortiz said. “There are limits in our capabilities but we’re going to be ready and use those resources as best as we can.”

Bill Hanna: 817-390-7698, @fwhanna

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