The 1997–98 El Nino event and related wintertime lightning variations in the southeastern United States



The El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is a climate anomaly responsible for worldwide weather impacts ranging from droughts to floods. In the United States, warm episode years are known to produce above normal rainfall along the Southeast U.S. Gulf Coast and into the Gulf of Mexico, with the greatest response observed in the October–March period of the warm episode year. The 1997–98 warm episode is notable for being the strongest event since 1982–83. With the recent launch of a lightning sensor on NASA's Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) in November 1997 and the detailed coverage of the U.S. National Lightning Detection Network (NLDN), such interannual changes in lightning activity can be examined with far greater detail than ever before. For the 1997–98 ENSO event the most significant year-to-year changes in lightning frequency worldwide occurred along the Gulf Coast and within the Gulf of Mexico basin during the Northern Hemisphere winter. Within a broad swath across the northern Gulf of Mexico basin there is a 100–150% increase in lightning days year-to-year (a peak of 33 days in the winter of 1997–98 vs. only 15 days or fewer in both the 1996–97 and 1998–99 winter). In addition, there is a nearly 200% increase in lightning hours (a peak of 138 hours in 1996–97 vs. 50 hours in both 1996–97 and 1998–99). The increase in lightning activity during ENSO occurs in association with a 100% increase in the number of synoptic scale cyclones that developed within or moved through the Gulf basin. The primary variables controlling these enhancements in thunderstorm activity are the position and strength of the jet stream.