Forecasters say elusive el nino clouds winter outlook

JONESBORO, AR (KAIT) - Winter is less than one month away, yet there is quite a bit of uncertainty in what we can expect during the season.

It seems far-fetched, but ocean water off the coast of South America plays a major role in the Region 8 winter season.

The ice storm of 2009 happened when an area of the Pacific Ocean warmed significantly during the month of November, causing el nino conditions to strengthen.

Ben Schott with the Memphis National Weather Service says they're now in uncharted water, due to normal ocean temperatures, which means a neutral el nino.

"This is the first time in the last 50 years that there's been a very significant record when it comes to el ninos and la ninas, where everything was pointing that we were easily going into an el nino season. And as we got into the fall, it just completely collapsed."

Long-term weather patterns are difficult to predict.

NWS Meteorologist-in-Charge Jim Belles is watching sea surface temperatures along the equator to see if the balance finally topples.

"It's looking like we have a greater probability right now of above average precipitation, which is probably really good news. Because last, much of the year has been below-average precipitation-wise. And then temperature-wise, we don't have a really good indication of any direction."

This extra precipitation could cause more harm than good.

Craighead County extension agent Branon Thiesse cringes at the thought of another ice storm.

He remembers hearing neighborhood trees snapping under the weight of the ice--and this year's exceptional drought has weakened most of them.

"After the 2009 ice storm, I hope we never see another one like that, as long as I'm here, because it was just devastating. People were without power for months. I don't know how they made it, other than just perseverance."

Thiesse adds that late fall is the perfect time to prepare for inclement weather.

Even if the ice storm of 2009 were to strike again, it would be difficult to match the damage.

"In a 3-year period, regrowth of tree branches over that have not occurred yet. And the number of power poles, I would like to think that all the ones that were weak, broke. And have been replaced with newer poles."

Click here for a safety and preparedness checklist.

More information from the Arkansas Extension Agency regarding the upcoming winter can be found here.