EXPLAINER: Why El Niño means more frequent smoke, storms in Southwest, Central Virginia

Expect more stormy and smoky episodes throughout the summer, partially due to El Niño

ROANOKE, Va. – So far this summer, we’ve had two instances when the air quality got into a Code Red or ‘Unhealthy’ category. It happened once in June, and it happened again on Monday, July 17.

Prior to that, the last time it got that bad was in the early 2000s.

In addition to that, Lynchburg has received more than three months’ worth of rain within the past week.

What gives?

This can all be traced back to global weather patterns. One that we talk about often is the El Niño. This refers to warmer waters off the coast of Peru.

El Niño refers t warmer ocean waters in the equatorial Pacific Ocean near Peru

Why would we care about that? Let’s explain.

Smoke In Our Sky

Traditionally, during an El Niño phase, you get extreme heat in the western U.S. and in western Canada. For instance, Phoenix is about to get its 19th consecutive day of 110°+ heat. That’s record-breaking for them.

Extreme heat is helping fuel drought in Canada along with hundreds of wildfires.

What El Niño means for the Western U.S. and Western Canada

As of this posting, the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center Inc. is reporting more than 900 wildfires in the country.

Nearly two-thirds of those are out of control, and nearly half of them are ongoing in British Columbia alone.

In a traditional El Niño setup, the Western U.S. bakes under high pressure while low pressure resides over the Eastern U.S. That puts Southwest and Central Virginia under a northwest flow. That’s what brings the smoke into our area.

Why does El Niño mean more smoke in our area?

With fires still burning out of control, we’re likely to see more smoky episodes until the snowy season north of the border.

Summer Storms

That same northwest flow we wrote about two sentences ago is strongest over the Nation’s midsection, meaning that storm clusters ride in from the west more frequently.

Severe weather outlook for Tuesday, 7/18/2023

That will happen Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday afternoons. After that, that wind field will shift farther north, leaving us mostly dry into the upcoming weekend.

Here’s an update we posted early Tuesday morning regarding the forecast for the rest of the week.


About the Author:

Meteorologist Chris Michaels is an American Meteorological Society (AMS) Certified Broadcaster, forecasting weather conditions in southwest Virginia on WSLS 10 News from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. weekdays on Virginia Today.