What is El Niño?

The weather phenomenon known as El Niño—meaning the little boy or Christ child in Spanish—has been much in the news of late as it continues to impact weather patterns across the United States. The weather extremes it brings can affect homeowners and business owners as well as the insurance companies that protect them.

El Niño conditions are typically experienced every two to five years. Here is what causes the weather phenomenon.


Meteorological overview 

Warmer tropical Pacific waters cause changes to the global atmospheric circulation, resulting in a wide range of variations in the weather in the United States and around the world.

Scientists officially declare an El Niño when sea surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean rise 0.5°C above their historical baseline for three months in a row. For an official El Niño episode, NOAA requires five consecutive three-month periods of abnormal warming.[1]

El Niño and La Niña (the cool phase of the phenomenon) episodes typically last for nine to 12 months, but can go on for more than a year. Both tend to develop during the spring (March to June), reach peak intensity during the late fall or winter (November to February), and then weaken during the following spring or early summer (March to June).

Each El Niño episode is different so its effects and intensity can vary from one occurrence to the next. However, in general, the influence of El Niño and La Niña in parts of the United States and the rest of the world is often so strong that they increase the odds of extreme weather events.

Some of the weather conditions associated with El Niño around the world include: hot weather, droughts; forest and bush fires; heavy rain and subsequent flooding; and landslides.[2]

Tropical cyclone activity is also influenced by El Niño. In the tropical Atlantic, the chance of experiencing a hurricane during El Niño declines, but it increases off the Pacific coast of Mexico, and more severe typhoons occur in the northwest Pacific.


Weathering El Niño with insurance

To be prepared for the erratic weather conditions brought about by El Niño, insurers work closely with their customers to manage weather-related risks and to ensure they are both adequately prepared and financially protected against weather-related damages.

Depending on the area of the country, some of the insurance coverages worth reviewing in preparation for El Niño are: homeowners—check whether there is a wind deductible; auto—damage from falling trees and other objects is covered by the optional comprehensive portion of an auto policy; and flood insurance—available as a separate policy through the National Flood Insurance Program.

There are also important mitigation steps that can protect homes and businesses from all types of weather-related hazards. The Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety provides information on how to secure homes and businesses.

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