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What is El Niño and its 2024 Forecast for Southwestern Rivers

By Codi Coghlan   •   December 15, 2023

What is El Niño and its 2024 Forecast for Southwestern Rivers

Salt River - Wide view of groups rafting flatwater

A freaky weather phenomenon occurs every few years, known as El Niño, and fishers were the first to notice it (vox.com). 

Beginning around Christmas, the sea surface warms up like the vacation of your dreams. Do not open up a new tab and Google search flights to Oaxaca just yet. While many yearn for bath-like waves, a lack of cold water in the Pacific halts the healthy churning of nutrients that feed fish and keep them alive. As a result, fishing nets come up empty (vox.com). 

Spanish settlers named this pattern El Niño. It means “boy” and references Jesus’s birth in December (vox.com). Though El Niño is devastating for plankton, its warmth can yield more evaporation, thus more precipitation. For river runners, it is a blessing. 

Before we get Baby Jesus’s diapers in a bunch about the prospect of higher flows, let us unpack what the Southwest El Niño forecast is for rivers this year.

The 2024 Southwest El Niño Forecast

Girls standing under butt Dam Falls getting soaked - Gates of Lodore

Baby Jesus, *ahem* El Niño is expected in the United States this winter (climate.gov). If all goes accordingly, the Pacific Ocean will become less wavy and split into a strengthening, subtropical jet stream near the equator and a weaker polar jet stream (University of Arizona). The effect will be a greater number of storms and above-average precipitation across the Southwest during winter and early spring (University of Arizona). Start praying. 

Additionally, this year’s El Niño is expected to be strong, Richard Sandrak strong in fact, with a 71% chance of measuring over 1.5°C (University of Georgia). An average sea-surface temperature at or above +0.5°C for three consecutive months on the Oceanic Niño Index (ONI) is considered to be in an El Niño phase. At or below -0.5°C is not deemed an El Niño but rather a La Niña (Spanish for girl), another creative name (World Climate Science).  

Let’s get real for a few seconds. In 2015, The Paris Climate Agreement set a goal to hold average temperature increases to less than 1.5°C to contain global warming (vox.com). Seemingly, 1.5°C is toasty not just for the Southwest. In the long run, it may be too hot for the entire planet to handle.  

Emphasis on Forecast

Lions Den Winter Drone - Durango - Mild to Wild Rafting

Despite El Niño knocking on our door, we still do not know for sure how it will affect the weather and water levels to come.   

Specifically, El Niño can vary in strength, as well as tilt the odds in favor of a particular weather outcome. That is, hundreds of predictions of Climatologists may lean in a certain direction. The cleanest inference we can make is that the stronger the El Niño, the more likely the winter precipitation pattern will match both digitized model forecast averages and the typical El Niño precipitation pattern (climate.gov). The prediction puzzle, it turns out, is, well, puzzling. 

What is more, El Niño is not the only factor that influences winter weather in the United States. Chaotic weather, such as a Madden-Julian Oscillation and a polar vortex, can stir the pot in different ways, including dry seasons (climate.gov). Keep on rain dancing!

What the Southwest El Niño Forecast Means for the 2024 Rafting Season

San Miguel River - Sawpit rapid - Guests paddling through whitewater - Mild to WIld What is El Niño and its Forecast for Southwestern Rivers this year?

The best we can say is that the coming winter will likely be wetter than normal in most of the Southwest, but it is not 100% certain. Rather than betting a couple Benjamins, those hoping to raft big whitewater should keep their eye on snow-levels in the mountains starting in January. 

Even if the Southwest El Niño forecast lacks luster for rivers, Mother Nature can almost always guarantee a good time. For example, lower water levels do not necessarily cause river rapids to disappear. Instead, low flows often create more technical rapids by exposing rocks that rafts can bounce and spin off. In fact, some rapids disappear altogether when water levels are too high due to flows rising above and blanketing all obstacles.

If you want to plan a rafting adventure ahead of time, which we always encourage — go for it. Whether El Niño throws its predicted tantrum, expect a flowing river in one of its many lovely, ever evolving forms.

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