AUSTIN (KXAN) — Last February brought Austin’s worst ice storm on record. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a disaster declaration after hundreds of pounds of ice accumulated on trees and power lines, knocking out power for more than 250,000 people and damaging one-third of all trees in the city.
As this winter approaches, the weather pattern is changing as our three-year La Niña ends and a strong — or very strong — El Niño ramps up.
The First Warning Weather team found that a strong El Niño pattern this winter could mean less ice, more rain, and much-needed drought relief in Central Texas.
Low lake levels claim another business
Greg Winborn had high hopes and a vision in 2022 when he opened Vincent’s on the Lake.
“The lake was pretty full, and all these people were going to pull up in their boats, and we were going to take margaritas out to them, and we were going to have live music,” Winborn said.
But Mother Nature had other plans.
“We opened and April went great, May was even better, then June was pretty good,” Winborn said. “Then the heat set in.”
July 2022 was Austin’s hottest on record (later surpassed by July 2023). Only two days that month had high temperatures under 100°.
“We just kept watching the lake go down, and down, and down,” Winborn said. “It kept getting worse. The boats couldn’t pull in, therefore we lost, I’d say, 40-plus % of our business, and we just could never recuperate it back.”
Vincent’s on the Lake closed six months later. Now, it’s just a vacant building with an empty bar and dry boat slips.
KXAN found that Vincent’s on the Lake is the seventh restaurant that tried – and failed – in this location over the last 10 years:
- Chita-Rita & The Chimp’s
- Kool Fish Seafood & Mexican Restaurant
- Café Blue
- Emerald Point Bar and Grill
- Iguana Grill
- Vincent’s on the Lake
- Carlos ‘N Charlie’s
But after years of a dry La Niña weather pattern that makes low lake levels more likely, a wetter El Niño has arrived, and will continue through the winter.
How El Niño affects our winter weather
We dug through the data from every winter that featured a “strong” or “very strong” El Niño pattern like we expect this year and analyzed rainfall patterns, lake level impact, and the number of freezes in the Austin area.
Of eight such winters since 1950, seven brought a lake level rise between November and February. The average Lake Travis rise from its lowest point in November to its highest level in February was 9 feet.
In the winter of 1991, a strong El Niño fueled Austin’s wettest December on record. More than 14 inches of rain fell in the Austin area — 12 inches above average — triggering major flooding on every major river in the area.
Lake Travis surged to its highest level ever, cresting at 710.4 feet above sea level at 12 p.m. Dec. 26. The lake was 29 feet higher than its full elevation, and less than four feet shy of flowing uncontrolled over the Mansfield Dam spillway toward Austin.
Our analysis found that in “strong” and “very strong” El Niño patterns, rainfall in the Austin area from December through February averages 9.37”, which is well above the average winter rainfall of 7.29”.
We should note, however, that some El Niño winters in the past have brought drier than normal weather.
But what about the odds of another winter storm?
Chances of another Central Texas winter storm this year
In a La Niña pattern like last winter, the position of the polar jet stream allows for colder than normal temperatures in Canada, where our coldest blasts of air originate. That allows for colder extremes to arrive in Central Texas with strong cold fronts in the winter.
But in an El Niño pattern like this winter, the air in the northern U.S. and southern Canada is not as cold. So when polar cold fronts come to Central Texas, the coldest days typically aren’t as extreme. This means that another crippling ice storm this winter – while possible – is less likely overall.
Austin averages only 12 freezes during an El Niño pattern like we expect this winter — far fewer than the long-term average of 19.
Back on Lake Travis, we asked Winborn if he would give it another shot if the lake fills up this winter.
“I’d do it again,” Winborn said. “Just for the fact of getting up and moving around. I’d do it.”
Stay up to date with our changing weather this winter by downloading the KXAN Weather App with First Warning Weather push alerts.