Global weather watchers predict a big upcoming winter for El Niño, perhaps the biggest ever. What does that portend for New Jersey?

A snowy street in Old Bridge (Chris Swendeman, Townsquare Media NJ)

The basic definition of El Niño is this: Trade winds that blow from east to west in the tropical Pacific Ocean tend to weaken every two to seven years. That change sets off a whole raft of weather changes that can make some areas wetter, others drier and cause major storms in some places.

We already know that a strong El Niño year tends to mean the Atlantic hurricane season, around New Jersey, can wind up being weaker.

This past year was a good example. But for the season ahead, what may be the biggest El Niño ever could spell out some winter trouble.

Just when you thought the Garden State's winter weather couldn't get any more unpredictable, this tropical Pacific troublemaker comes along and sets meteorology on its ear. But there is some good news.

"We can generally rule out an extended period of very cold weather," said Dave Robinson, state climatologist at Rutgers University. "El Niño is a mixed bag here in New Jersey. It can either be rather wet, or rather dry, rather warm, sometimes on the cold side."

When there is a strong to very strong El Niño, Robinson said New Jersey has a number of coastal storms, but not a lot of snow. Two of the state's least snowy winters in over a century, 1972-73 and 1997-98, were both strong to very strong El Niño winters. But once again, underscoring the system's volatility, there was one major snowstorm during 1982-83 -- another very strong El Niño.

Robinson uses the word "volatility" a lot in describing what might happen with the weather, both here and elsewhere.

"A lot of activity, a lot of storm systems, a lot of anomalous weather, not just in Jersey but around the globe," he said. "For sure, it tends to get wet in the southeastern part of the United States. It can get wet in California, as you may have been hearing.

"But we've got other factors, we have to remember, besides El Niño in the tropical Pacific. We have a warm pool of water in the eastern North Pacific that has tended to form a ridge, or an area of high pressure, in the western part of the United States the last two winters, which has helped drive some cold air down into the east. And that warm pool still remains."

When it comes to New Jersey, Robinson said we are kind of "squeezed" between extremes in an El Niño situation, "and just a little change in one direction or another can make a big difference."

He said it will be interesting to see how things play out.