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NASA: US Could Feel El Niño's Effects in Early 2016

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These false-color images provided by NASA satellites compare warm Pacific Ocean water temperatures from the strong El Nino that brought North America large amounts of rainfall in 1997 (R) and the current El Nino as of Dec. 27, 2015 (L). NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory says the strong El Nino in the Pacific Ocean shows no sign of weakening. (NASA via AP)

These false-color images provided by NASA satellites compare warm Pacific Ocean water temperatures from the strong El Nino that brought North America large amounts of rainfall in 1997 (R) and the current El Nino as of Dec. 27, 2015 (L). NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory says the strong El Nino in the Pacific Ocean shows no sign of weakening. (NASA via AP)

NASA says the United States could soon feel the possibly chaotic effects of the weather phenomenon known as El Niño.

The U.S. space agency is warning this year's El Niño could be as powerful as the one in 1997-1998, which led to intense ice storms and flooding across the country.

The conclusions are based partly on new satellite images that show the current El Niño pattern closely mirroring the one from 1997-1998, which was one of the strongest on record.

"The images show nearly identical, unusually high sea surface heights along the equator in the central and eastern Pacific: the signature of a big and powerful El Niño," NASA said in a statement.

Cyclical phenomenon

El Niño is a natural phenomenon that occurs every few years, when tropical waters off the Pacific coast of South America turn warmer than normal. Warm air rises off those waters and changes the path of the major wind currents that blow around the planet.

NASA says the current El Niño, which has already created weather chaos around the world, "shows no sign of waning."

FILE - Lightning illuminates a house after a tornado touched down in Jefferson County, Ala., damaging several houses in Birmingham, Dec. 25, 2015.

FILE - Lightning illuminates a house after a tornado touched down in Jefferson County, Ala., damaging several houses in Birmingham, Dec. 25, 2015.

The U.S. could feel El Niño's biggest effects during the first few months of 2016, it added. This could include "several months of relatively cool and wet conditions across the southern United States, and relatively warm and dry conditions over the northern United States."

However, NASA says El Niño could "bring some relief" in the form of rain for the western U.S., much of which has suffered through several years of drought.

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