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El Niño Fizzle: No Relief Likely for California Drought

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All that talk you’ve been hearing about El Niño coming to wash California out of its three-year drought: fahgettaboudit.

Federal scientists now say the odds of those peculiar ocean conditions often associated with wet winters here have diminished substantially, and there’s now about a 65 percent chance of El Niño by late fall-early winter, right when we’d be hoping for rain and snow to return. As recently as a month ago, modelers at NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center had those odds pegged closer to 80 percent.

‘It’s a flop.’– Bill Patzert, NASA

More important is the anticipated strength of the pattern, which NOAA forecasters now characterize as “weak.” That means that surface waters in the eastern Pacific aren’t warming up as much as expected.

NASA climatologist Bill Patzert says he would “take it down another notch or two,” even from that.

“It’s a flop,” says Patzert, who watches ocean and atmospheric patterns from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena.

The images above show warming (red) waters in the Pacific that indicate El Nino. Use the slider in the center to move back and forth between images and note how much the warming has dissipated in recent months. (NASA/JPL)

Forecasters had been more optimistic last spring, when they saw what looked like the potential for a big honkin’ El Niño, just in time for the rainy season. Typically it’s only stronger El Niños that exert enough influence on the atmosphere to produce heavy rains in California, and those are relatively rare events.

“That El Niño that was really coming on like gangbusters in the spring has virtually disappeared at this point,” says Patzert. “Unless we see a miraculous resurgence, any hope for an El Niño soaking this winter is pretty much in the rear-view mirror.”

Patzert calls this a “classic false start” for El Niño, which he says is not that unusual.

The key, he says, is the strong trade winds that blow from the Americas toward Asia, piling up warm water toward the western side of the Pacific. When those winds abate, that warmer surface water starts sloshing back toward us.

“Unfortunately as summer showed up, those trade winds had a resurgence, and whatever we had in terms of warm water in the central and eastern Pacific had disappeared.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean a fourth dry winter. Patzert says other forces could work in our favor; the stubborn ridge of high pressure that parked along California’s coast last winter and forced the usual Pacific storms to detour north, could just as easily give way this year. If it does, says Patzert, “We could have one wet, cold storm after another making its way down the length of California, and that would certainly be sweet.”

El Niño is technically one phase of what scientists call the El Niño Southern Oscillation. It’s opposite is known as La Niña, characterized by colder surface temperatures and drier times in California. Forecasters see very little likelihood of La Niña conditions in the foreseeable future.

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Category: Climate, News, Physics, Water

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About the Author ()

Craig is KQED's science editor, specializing in weather, climate, water & energy issues, with a little seismology thrown in just to shake things up. Prior to his current position, he launched and led the station's award-winning multimedia project, Climate Watch. Craig is also an accomplished writer/producer of television documentaries, with a focus on natural resource issues.
  • sharontsalguero

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  • beccoid

    La Nina doesn’t have a predictable impact on California rain either, alas.

  • MPPBruin

    Good news is that I won’t have to mow my lawn much. Bad news is that it will because the lawn will be dead.

    • John Schrader

      Isn’t it already?

  • John Schrader

    While I hope California gets a good drenching this winter, wet winters can happen in neutral years as well.

  • advocatus diaboli

    It is obvious they don’t really know much about predicting global weather. Sure they have rationales after the fact for isolated phenomena: once the El Niño fizzled, they stated a simple reason. But they have no idea why those winds died off. No clue at all and no prediction before it happened. They know the affect once a phenomenon happens, is more strong, or more weak, but they observe after the fact and ,even then, hedge their bets with vague probabilistic forecasts. The reality is weather is so complex they probably have accounted for and understand a 10th of the variables in a weather systems in their models. And I am being overly generous. Which is why they wave their hands. Might as well be Shaman.

    Then they (in other articles even more than here) state other phenomena, now not masked by El Niño, might bring a lot of rain anyway. Maybe. Who knows? Certainly not them. So it’s early in the season yet given California’s first rains usually don’t come until late Oct or early Nov. The bottom line: they are still more weather observers than forecasters. They know as much about the weather as 13th century man knew about the bacteria and viruses. They are still working with leeches, scientifically I’ll grant them, but they are still in the dark ages.

    This is why, while I acknowledge global climate change, I am skeptical of man’s culpability. After the Ice Age, the global temperature increased rapidly in only 40 years (unprecedented before or hence) in the Holocene contributing to massive large mammal extinctions with no help from fossil fuel burning by man. How do we know most of this climate change isn’t once again Nature not man? Pollution is bad certainly and we should curb it, but man is not united globally and will not be in the next 100 years. These climate “shaman” don’t even understand El Niño yet let alone global climate change. I don’t trust they have a clue about it—they are, once again, observing and extrapolating weak and short data sets for guessed premises about man’s contribution to weather. Instead, we ought to start preparing to the change now, because it is inevitable. Man will never unite to curb pollution in time if man is indeed the culprit. If he is not (just as likely) he will have hurt his economies preventing him from affording the changes needed to ensure his survival of the inevitable.