The El Nino event in the Pacific Ocean this year could be one of the strongest ever recorded and influence weather patterns across the United States well into 2016, according to forecasters at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center.

NOAA in March declared the arrival of the El Nino, which is defined as warmer-than-average sea surface temperatures in the central Pacific Ocean near the equator (see Daily GPI, March 6). At that time, the forecaster expected the El Nino to remain weak and exert little influence on global weather and climate.

“Since March, above-normal sea surface temperatures across the equatorial Pacific have continued to increase,” Mike Halpert, deputy director of the Climate Prediction Center, said during a conference call Thursday. “This month’s El Nino forecast update, issued this morning, continues the expectation of a strong El Nino during the late fall and winter, with El Nino likely lasting into the spring.

“What’s new this month is we’re predicting that this El Nino could be among the strongest El Ninos in the historical record dating back to 1950. This is because three-month average sea surface temperatures in an area that we call the Nino 3.4 region, located in the East-Central equatorial Pacific, could potentially reach or exceed 2 degrees Celsius above normal, which is 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above normal, a value that we’ve only recorded three times in the last 65 years.”

Analysts are factoring the El Nino into their natural gas price forecasts. Late last month, Goldman Sachs analysts Damien Courvalin and Raquel Ohana said they expect New York Mercantile Exchange gas prices to average $2.75/MMBtu in the second half of this year (see Shale Daily, July 27).

A warm summer could push prices higher, but the upside would be limited by low Appalachian coal prices due to recent coal-fired power plant retirements and an extended period of market share loss to cheaper gas, the analysts said. “In fact, the historical distribution of remaining summer weather puts the likelihood of gas rallying sustainably above $3.00/MMBtu at less than 6% with the average El Nino impact pointing to a potentially cool rest of summer.”

Temperature and precipitation impacts across the contiguous United States are expected to remain minimal this summer but increase into the late fall and winter, NOAA said. El Nino also will likely contribute to a below-normal Atlantic hurricane season.

Last week, NOAA said there is a 90% chance that this year’s hurricane season will be below normal, with a 70% chance for six to 10 named storms, of which one to four could become hurricanes and zero to one could become major hurricanes (see Daily GPI, Aug. 6). The reduced tropical activity is linked to El Nino, NOAA said.

NOAA’s El Nino forecast dovetails with recent predictions by other prognosticators. AccuWeather forecasters have said the El Nino could bring some drought relief to California and milder winters to the northern United States and Canada (see Daily GPI, July 13). And MDA Weather Services has said a strengthening El Nino event could bring some bad news for the natural gas industry in the form of a warmer-than-normal winter across the northern tier of the United States (see Daily GPI, July 22).