WHAT'S NEXT FOR MICHIGAN WEATHER?: Ocean temps & history offer hints at spring, summer, next winter

(WXYZ) - Cold and snow. Cold and snow.

Nearly everyone is screaming "When will it end?" or something similar but not repeatable.

For an answer to that question, I'm looking to the water temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean. No, I'm not planning an exotic trip to get away from it all. But long range weather forecasts depend greatly on what those ocean temperatures do.

Snow and cold have seemed endless in southeast Michigan since early December. Even spring's arrival almost a week ago hasn't changed the wintry pattern. We're now only two inches of snow away from the snowiest winter season on record, and this "spring" month of March will probably be the coldest March since 1960.

The forecast for the next couple of months, even into June, is for temperatures to still average cooler than normal. That's partly because a pattern as persistent as this one doesn't usually change quickly, and partly because of all the ice and snow locked up in the Great Lakes basin. It will take longer than normal for the ice to break up and the water to warm, suppressing our warm-ups.

But by the time we get into the heart of summer and beyond, larger forces could prevail. Those water temperatures in the Pacific are forecast by long range computer models to continue warming. In fact, there is now a 50% chance for an El Nino to develop in the summer or fall of 2014. El Nino is technically the negative phase of the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO). It's associated with warmer than average sea surface temperatures (SSTs) in the central and eastern tropical Pacific.

When El Nino develops, temperatures in southeast Michigan tend to be warmer than average, especially in the cold times of year. Snowfall tends to be lower than average. In other words, the exact opposite of what we've had lately. As of today, the Climate Prediction Center's LONG LONG range outlook for next December, January and February is for above normal temperatures.

Consider this if you're thinking you can't handle another winter like this one. That record winter snowfall we're chasing, when we got over 93" of snow in 1880-81, was followed the very next winter by the third LEAST snowy winter ever. Only 15.1" of snow fell the winter of 1881-82; we'll likely get that much in March alone this year.

But I'll close with a caveat: Long range seasonal forecasting is still very hit and miss. As of last fall, the outlook for this winter was for near normal temperatures and snowfall. But there was no defined El Nino or La Nina last fall, and that makes seasonal forecasting much trickier.

So if you're sick of winter, you might want to root for the warmer tropical Pacific ocean water, even if you don't get to stick your toes in it anytime soon.

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