(FloridaToday.com) - An El Niño is brewing in the Pacific Ocean, which could wreak havoc in much of the world in the coming months.
But it could be good news for Florida.
The emerging climate pattern of warm water in the Pacific Ocean, near the equator, raises the odds of floods, droughts, cyclones, tornadoes and other extreme global weather.
But in Florida, El Niño-driven winds can shear apart storms before they strengthen to hurricanes.
The effect is not a given. Hurricane Andrew happened on the tail-end of an El Niño in 1992, so forecasters — as always — warn against complacency.
"It's not an absolute," David Zierden, state climatologist at Florida State University's Florida Climate Center, said of El Niño's hurricane-taming effect. "The way this one's evolving, it should be in place in time to impact our hurricane season ... It's probably going to be strong to moderate in strength."
Hurricane season runs June 1 to Nov. 30.
Federal forecasters recently increased the probability of an El Niño this year from 50 to 65 percent.
They expect El Niño to develop within one to three months. It typically forms every several years, pushing the jet stream farther south, over Central Florida.
Early this year, climate scientists warned El Niño events could become more frequent because of global warming.
And some El Niño researchers have been warning against a repeat of 1997-98, when overly cautious forecasts resulted in a public ill-prepared for the devastation that was to come. That El Niño killed 20,000 globally and caused almost $100 billion in damages.
El Niño creates shearing westerly winds that tear apart prospective hurricanes.
No such shearing effect exists during La Niña — the opposite pattern of cooler-than-usual Pacific waters near the equator — or during neutral phases between the two cycles.
El Niño can also have implications for wildfires. But this year's El Niño prospects don't look to be as extreme as in 1998, Zierden said, when wildfires ravaged Florida. That year, an abrupt shift from a strong El Niño to its opposite pattern, La Niña, delayed Florida's rainy season, resulting in wide-spread dry brush.
El Niño fueled an unusually wet, mild winter that enabled excess growth of underbrush. Then La Niña quickly followed, causing severe drought in May and June, which parched the thick underbrush.
"That was kind of a unique transition that year," Zierden said.
Fires started north of Brevard in May, then inside the county when frequent lightning strikes kicked in. More than 30 homes and about 70,000 acres burned countywide.
The landscape looks much safer this year. As of Wednesday, Melbourne had received 15.53 inches of rain so far this year, 4.26 inches above the long-term average.
This week, the Keetch-Byram drought index, which measures moisture, showed Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral with the highest fire risk in Brevard County.
But the county's overall risk remains low on the index.
Another measure of the risk, the Wildland Fire Danger Index, also was "low" this week. It estimates the possibility for a fire to start and require suppression on any given day and takes into account relative humidity.
Sean Luchs, a meteorologist with the Florida Forest Service, expect El Niño to have little impact on the Space Coast's wildfire season this year.
"We're currently still in a neutral phase, and while El Niño continues to look increasingly likely, we're not there yet," Luchs said via email.
Although not always, there is typically a lag between El Niño arriving in the tropical Pacific and its effects on Florida weather, he added.
"As far as impact on wildfire activity goes, it may well be more significant for next year's peak," he said.