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El Niño watch issued, with global climate pattern possible by summer or fall

The National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center on Thursday placed the globe on El Niño watch, with a 50 percent chance of the global climate pattern developing by summer or fall.

El Nino is characterized by above-average Pacific Ocean surface temperatures along the equator, just west of South America. It can cause climate patterns that contribute to extreme weather around the world, with some areas prone to drought or others to flooding, for example.

In Maryland and the Northeast, El Niño is perhaps best known for bringing snowy winters -- though that's not required, as this snowy winter occurred under what are considered "neutral" conditions, with neither El Niño or La Niña present.

Models suggest neutral conditions will continue at least through the spring, but that El Niño could arrive during the summer or fall.

"While all models predict warming in the tropical Pacific, there is considerable uncertainty as to whether El Niño will develop during the summer or fall," forecasters wrote. "If westerly winds continue to emerge in the western equatorial Pacific, the development of El Niño would become more likely."

Neutral conditions have endured since March 2012, the longest stretch with neither El Niño or La Niña since a period from 1992-1995.

When El Niño conditions are present, average snowfall in Baltimore is as much as 10 inches above the 18-20 inches in an average winter, according to the National Weather Service.

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