What’s El Niño and why does it boost the potential for a busier hurricane season in the Pacific?

The odds for hurricane activity are predicted to be higher as we transition back to El Niño.
Published: Jun. 6, 2023 at 1:50 PM HST|Updated: Jun. 6, 2023 at 3:24 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Hawaii may be a tropical paradise, but it’s not immune to hurricanes.

And forecasters are predicting this year’s hurricane season could be busier than normal.

You might have heard that’s because of El Niño conditions in the Pacific. But what is El Niño?

We’ve got you covered:

If you hear El Niño, think warm water

Over the last three years, La Niña conditions have present in the islands, bringing cooler than normal ocean temperatures near the equator and suppressing tropical cyclone activity in the Central Pacific Basin.

But this year, the odds for hurricane activity are predicted to be higher as we transition back to El Niño.

El Niño refers to the movement of warmer water from the West Pacific toward the Eastern Pacific. Oftentimes, these warmer temperatures in the ocean serve as a breeding ground for thunderstorm and hurricane activity.

According to experts, it is still too early to say how strong this El Niño will be, but they are urging everyone in Hawaii to prepare for a busier-than-normal hurricane season.

“El Niño doesn’t just affect us here in the islands locally, it has global effects,” said National Weather Service Meteorologist Joseph Clark. For example, it brings drier weather to the Western Pacific,

“A lot of people remember the 1997-1998 El Niño when the term kind of entered popular lexicon after California received torrential rains, which caused a lot of flooding and damage,”

How will El Niño affect Hawaii?

Central Pacific Hurricane Center forecasters say four to seven tropical cyclones are predicted for the Central Pacific hurricane region during the 2023 season, which began June 1.

These cyclones include tropical depressions, storms and hurricanes.

Currently, no forecasts have said how many tropical cyclones will actually impact the islands, but officials remind residents that it “only takes one” to leave behind significant amounts of damage.

With El Niño in place, Hawaii may see more drought.

“We expect drought to develop at some point during the summer and then progressively get worse,” said NWS Hydrologist Kevin Kodama.

“By the end of the dry season, we’re going to have some areas with severe and possibly extreme drought, especially in the Leeward areas of the Big Island and Maui County,”

The hurricane season in the Central Pacific runs through through Nov. 30.

Officials encourage Hawaii residents to start preparing now if they haven’t done so yet.

“One of the big concerns with our vulnerability here in Hawaii is how rare these events are and how we let our guard down because we haven’t seen destruction from a hurricane,” said NOAA/NWS Warning Coordination Meteorologist John Bravender. “The tendency would be to be underprepared for them.”

How are tropical cyclones born?

It begins with a favorable environment that has rising, warm moist air, low wind levels and warm ocean temperatures above 80 degrees, where a thunderstorm is formed.

This type of environment is common under El Niño conditions.

As these thunderstorms become more organized, they rotate and become a tropical depression.

And once the winds hit 39 to 73 mph, the depression becomes a tropical storm.

Levels of alert: The difference between a hurricane watch and warning

After winds exceed 74 mph, it is considered a full-blown hurricane. Depending on the intensity of the winds, the hurricane is categorized from one to five.

At the center of hurricanes, winds can reach up to 200 mph.

What steps should you take to prepare for hurricane season?

Gov. Josh Green is reminding residents that it takes only one storm to affect our lives.

“The state of Hawaii encourages all of us to learn about our vulnerability to these storms, develop an emergency plan and have two weeks of emergency supplies to ensure your safety and those that you love,” said Green.

Other important preparedness tips include:

  • Make a hurricane emergency kit. For more info on what to have in your kit, click here.
  • Secure your home, cover up windows and bring in outdoor furniture. More info here.
  • Make a family communications plan. Click here.
  • Familiarize yourself with your property and if will be impacted by potential flooding.
  • If possible, purchase two weeks worth of food, water and supplies for you and your loved ones.