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Will El Niño come to the rescue this year? Signs point to yes, forecasters say

July 16, 2015

Updated July 17, 2015 3:36 p.m.

An El Niño-enhanced storm slammed Huntington Beach Pier in 1983, destroying the End Cafe and the end of the pier.



El Niño, for better or worse

1972-73: Ocean temperatures indicated a strong El Niño, but only an average amount of rain fell, about 11 inches in Southern California.

1982-83: The rain, snow and wind brought by El Niño conditions killed 36 people, injured 481 and caused $1.2 billion of damage to the California economy, according to official estimates. The storms are often considered the worst weather disaster in modern California history. About 18 inches of rain fell in Southern California.

1997-98: More rain fell in 1997-98 than in 1982-83, but caused less damage because Californians were more prepared. Dramatic waves nearly 20 feet tall and winds close to 80 mph threatened the coastline. More than 16 inches of rain fell in Southern California from October to April.

2015-16: Scientists are predicting a strong El Niño trend to continue through the winter, possibly bringing drenching rains.

By the numbers


Normal Southern California winter rainfall in inches


Highest winter rainfall in Southern California in inches, 1982-83

Forecasters are growing increasingly confident that warm ocean El Niño conditions will continue through the fall and winter – possibly leading to a drought-relieving rainy season.

Rain isn’t guaranteed, forecasters warn, but given the warmth brewing in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, downpours in California are increasingly likely this winter.

The latest predictions, issued last week, say there’s a 90 percent chance El Niño conditions will continue through the winter and an 80 percent chance they’ll continue into spring.

Last spring, forecasts suggested a warm Pacific might bring rain to California, but the storms never materialized. According to Dave Pierce, a scientist at the climate research division of Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, the climate forecast models this year agree that El Niño is much more likely.

“Usually when you get a strong El Niño, you have a wet California winter. But it’s not guaranteed, unfortunately,” Pierce said.

Some of California’s wettest winters have come during strong El Niño conditions, when days of rain have swamped streets, overwhelmed storm drains and brought mudslides in fire stricken areas. A particularly wet winter in 1982-83 dropped about 18 inches of rain in Southern California from October to April, killed 36 people and caused $1.2 billion in damage.

A normal Southern California winter brings about 10 inches of rain. Last winter it rained 6 to 8 inches, depending on the area.

However, forecasters warn that weak El Niño conditions can just as often yield dry winters.

In 2006-07 and 2012-13, for instance, ocean temperatures in the equatorial Pacific were above normal – technically El Niño conditions. But those years were dry in California. Similarly, 2009-10 was an El Niño year, with average precipitation.

Depending on the strength of the El Niño, rains may come only to Southern California, and not Northern California, which is the source of much of the state’s water. Aside from a few exceptionally strong El Niño years in 1972, 1982 and 1997, El Niño has failed to bring rain to Northern California, according to NOAA forecasters.

The strongest El Niño of the 20th century brought torrential rains to California in the winter of 1997-98, when it rained more than 16 inches from October to April in Southern California. The preceding July, ocean temperatures signaled a strong El Niño.

While the signals this July aren’t quite as strong, they’re not that different from 1997, Pierce said.

Homeowners should prepare for rain, he said, by cleaning gutters or taking care of other rain-proofing projects they’ve been putting off.

“Now would be the time to do it,” Pierce said.

At its most basic, El Niño is a measure of high temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. Those temperatures occur when predominant trade winds in the Pacific Ocean that blow east to west slacken. Warm ocean water then migrates east, affecting the North Pacific jet stream and causing it to push storms normally headed for the Pacific Northwest south, to California.

That means that in El Niño years the Northwest is dry, while California and the Southern states from Texas to Georgia get soaked.

Normally, California’s ocean temperatures – whether up or down – roughly parallel the equatorial region of the Pacific. But in an unusual turn of events starting in early 2014, Southern California ocean temperatures skyrocketed, while equatorial temperatures crept up at a much slower pace.

Then, suddenly, in early 2015, California’s ocean temperatures started to plummet, even as equatorial temperatures continued to rise.

Dan Rudnick, another scientist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, oversees the ocean monitoring program that records the local temperature data. He said he couldn’t pinpoint what effect these roller-coaster temperatures would have on El Niño.

“Right now, the temperature in the water (near California) is cooling, not doing the thing that’s happening at the equator. And that’s unusual,” 
Rudnick said. 

“It’s a really unusual year. At the moment we are out of phase with what’s happening at the equator.”

But the equator says El Niño is coming.

Even so, forecasters warn it won’t break California’s drought.

Over the last four years, California has accumulated a rainfall deficit of more than 26 inches, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data. With so much ground to make up to refill depleted reservoirs and replenish snowpack, even a strong rainy season won’t fully restore California’s water supplies.

But if this year’s El Niño is strong enough, rain is likely to come across the state, according to Chapman professor Hesham El-Askary, who is studying the correlation between rain in California and El Niño conditions in the Pacific.

“In El Niño, you will have a wetter Southern U.S., from California to the Carolinas,” El-Askary said.

“We might be experiencing some really serious precipitation, but we should not be jumping to conclusions.”

Contact the writer: Twitter: @aaronorlowski

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