Stay out of the woods during El Nino
To be honest, with that headline, I may be engaging in reductio ad absurdum. That’s extending an argument to a ridiculous extreme in order to criticize it. However, according to a new study published in the scientific journal Sciences Advances, "warm" (El Niño) and "cool" (La Niña) phases of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) were found to increase the chance for snakebites. Some national media journalists have suggested an uptick in snakebites this winter because of El Niño. The WBRZ Weather Team has been talking about this year’s El Niño for several months now. This year’s event is expected to be one of the strongest El Niños on record; the warm phase. You can read about it here.
More snakebites this winter? Should you not chance the risk of snakebite by avoiding the outdoors? That’s what some in the national media have suggested. That’s enough to keep you out of the woods right? This research does however provide a truly interesting observation, so let us take a look at the claim and apply the theory to Louisiana.
Since snakes are “cold-blooded” and rely on the environment to regulate their body temperature, this would help support the idea that snakes are “more active” during warmer than average conditions. Also, there are claims in the media that rain temporarily disturbs the snakes’ habitat, meaning that a snake may be more active during wetter than average conditions. After reading the study, one can understand that according to the research, the prey of snakes are more active when it’s actually dry, so that when prey activity crashes during rainfall, the snake may be more inclined to increase its contact with humans. More on that in a moment.
The study was conducted in Costa Rica. Most snakebites in Costa Rica are attributable to a certain pit viper species, not native to Louisiana. Certainly, one can assume that not all snakes are the same, and that different species have different distribution, movement, foraging patterns, and “lifestyles.”
El Niño is a truly complicated cycle. In summary, the effects of El Niño in Louisiana during the winter usually consist of a cooler and wetter than average winter. A cooler than average winter? Score one for us. In other places of the United States, there are much different effects, which may or may not enhance the activity of the snake population. In short, there is no definitive characterization of the effects of El Niño for the United States.
Overall, higher precipitation did not show an increase in snakebites. Score two for us. The study goes on to say during lower than normal rainfall, abrupt changes in the activity of prey by rainfall are more likely. In essence, for Costa Rica, La Niña and El Niño increase snake activity. For us, during this El Niño, we shouldn’t see an increase in activity.
It should be noted that without doing actual research pertaining to Louisiana, it’s difficult to conclude whether or not El Niño makes a significant difference in Louisiana snakebite statistics, but it is certainly feasible to believe an uptick is possible with warmer and drier conditions. In our peculiar situation with a cooler and wetter winter, does El Niño actually make us safer? Again, there is no research to confirm that either way.
One more point to mention is that the study also focused on very poor, rural, underdeveloped, or agricultural areas of the country. Many of these areas were in the humid and wet lowlands, where a majority of snakes live, and snakebites are concentrated. The paper eludes to a bigger increase in activity in these regions, where there is a greater chance of contact between humans and snakes.
In essence, don't let another scary story or the super scary snakes rattle your visit to some of our beautiful forests this winter. There is no doubt that Louisiana has snakes, so you should always be cautious no matter what time of year it is. You can read more about snakebite safety here.
On Facebook: Meteorologist Robert Gauthreaux III
On Twitter: @RG3wbrz
Robert is the weekend meteorologist at WBRZ. He holds a B.S. in Meteorology and is in progress of obtaining his M.S. in Geography (Climatology) from LSU.