It seems that this year everyone is expecting and many hoping for a strong El Niño to develop off the California coast. Part of that sentence is wrong. El Niños don't develop off the California coast. They develop along the equator in the eastern Pacific Ocean and the resulting effects push north and south along the coasts of North and South America.
So, what is going to happen this year? Well, a few months ago meteorologists began to take note of sea surface height conditions (measured via satellite) that were strikingly similar to what we saw in the months preceding the two last big El Niños (1997-’98 and 1982-’83). This led the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to issue an official El Niño watch in early March. Since then, those conditions don’t seem to have gone away – and so the likelihood of El Niño forming continues to rise…
That whole paragraph was written last year on June 18, 2014 in a Grist.com article. As everyone knows that possible El Niño fizzled out. The article states that european scientists thought there was an 90% change of El Niño forming. So much for predictions I thought. In fact there are many confusing ideas about El Niños that people have in their heads. I was so convinced that my “idea” of an El Niño was going to happen last year that I collected numerous articles about when, where, and how and deleted them when it didn't happen. That was dumb because it actually did happen.
The long-anticipated El Niño has finally arrived, according to forecasters with NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. In their updated monthly outlook released today (March 5, 2015), forecasters issued an El Niño Advisory to declare the arrival of the ocean-atmospheric phenomenon marked by warmer-than-average sea surface temperatures in the central Pacific Ocean near the equator.
Due to the weak strength of the El Niño, widespread or significant global weather pattern impacts are not anticipated. However, certain impacts often associated with El Niño may appear this spring in parts of the Northern Hemisphere, such as wetter-than-normal conditions along the U.S. Gulf Coast.
Note the “wetter-than-normal conditions along the U.S. Gulf Coast” and think Texas.
So we really did have an El Niño and nobody really knew because of the confusing nature of El Niños.
Will an El Niño actually help break the California drought? Maybe it will and maybe it won't. It might depend on it's strength. The website, The Myths and Realities of El Niño, explains,
However, not all El Niños have the same strength or location, and consequently their impacts can vary significantly. In general, the larger the area and the greater the warming of the eastern Pacific's equatorial waters, the greater the impact on other regions. Since 1950 there have been 23(24?) years during which the equatorial Pacific has warmed enough to be classified as an El Niño. There have been a total of eight seasons beginning in years (1952, 1953, 1958, 1969, 1976, 1977, 2004, 2006, 2013) classified as “weak” El Niños, eight years (1951, 1963, 1968, 1986, 1991, 1994, 2002, 2009) as “moderate”, four years (1957, 1965, 1972, 1987) as “strong” and two years (1982, 1997) as “very strong” El Niños.
Will an El Niño bring lot's of rain to California. Maybe it will and maybe it won't.
Historical records for the past six plus decades for Central California, including the SF Bay Area, show that during the twenty-two El Niño events the rainfall has been roughly above normal (i.e., > 120%) half the time and below normal (see Climatology of El Niño Events and California Precipitation]
Over the same span, Northern California had three wet years during the five strong events, with five above-normal seasons during the seventeen weak-to-moderate El Niños.
Southern California showed more of a wet bias during strong El Niños with above-normal rain in four of the five seasons, near normal the fifth year. During weak to moderate events Southern California precipitation was above normal six of the 17 seasons, near normal six seasons and below normal the remaining five years.
The bottom line is that California can get wet during El Niño, but not always. As a matter of fact, the California drought in the 1976-77 winter was during a weak El Niño. It is important to keep in mind that El Niño is not the only thing happening in the atmosphere and that other patterns can either enhance or detract from its overall impact.
Will an El Niño cause massive damage to California due to flooding. Once again maybe it will or maybe it won't.
It is just as likely that California will have significant flooding in a non-El Niño year. Of the 10 costliest flood years in California since 1950, only four happened during a season when there was an El Niño. Two others occurred during seasons with La Niña, and the final four were when the temperature of the tropical Pacific was near normal…
The major weather pattern that causes flooding in California is when a strong surge of subtropical moisture dumps copious amounts of rain over a portion of California for five to seven days. These are so-called Atmospheric Rivers (“Pineapple connection”) and they are slightly more prevalent during years when there is no El Niño.
Where did El Niños get such a big and scary reputation? I think it's Chris Farley's fault.
It a little late in this post but let's give a simple explanation of what an El Niño is.
Usually, the wind blows strongly from east to west along the equator in the Pacific. This actually piles up water (about half a meter's worth) in the western part of the Pacific. In the eastern part, deeper water (which is colder than the sun-warmed surface water) gets pulled up from below to replace the water pushed west. So, the normal situation is warm water (about 30 C) in the west, cold (about 22 C) in the east.
In an El Niño, the winds pushing that water around get weaker. As a result, some of the warm water piled up in the west slumps back down to the east, and not as much cold water gets pulled up from below. Both these tend to make the water in the eastern Pacific warmer, which is one of the hallmarks of an El Niño.
But it doesn't stop there. The warmer ocean then affects the winds–it makes the winds weaker! So if the winds get weaker, then the ocean gets warmer, which makes the winds get weaker, which makes the ocean get warmer … this is called a positive feedback, and is what makes an El Niño grow.
So the question of the day is will this year's El Niño be a super strong one. Many people think so but are hedging their bets. What's the current prediction?
Nearly all models predict El Niño to continue into the Northern Hemisphere winter 2015-16, with many multi-model averages predicting a strong event at its peak strength (3-month values of the Niño-3.4 index of +1.5oC or greater; Fig. 6). At this time, the forecaster consensus is in favor of a significant El Niño in excess of +1.5oC in the Niño-3.4 region. Overall, there is a greater than 90% chance that El Niño will continue through Northern Hemisphere winter 2015-16, and around an 80% chance it will last into early spring 2016.
Some are predicting the strongest El Niño ever recorded. The eastern Pacific Ocean has already seen some strange occurrences this year with record warm temperatures, record sea lion and Cassin's Auklet die-offs and strange marine life showing up.
Over 50 birds documented by a COASST team outside of Lincoln City, OR. © COASST
There are some things that an El Niño can bring and one of these is higher sea levels.
The El Niño event underway in the Pacific Ocean is impacting temperature and weather patterns around the world. But its effects aren’t confined to the atmosphere: A new study has found that the cyclical climate phenomenon can ratchet up sea levels off the West Coast by almost 8 inches over just a few seasons.
When water warms, it expands; in the case of the oceans, that means higher sea levels. This is part of what is causing the global-warming linked long-term rise in the oceans, as they absorb much of the excess heat trapped by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. (Melting land-bound glaciers are also contributing to overall sea level rise.)
The clearest signals from El Niño on coastal sea levels were found along the West Coast; the find wasn’t surprising given that El Niño is a Pacific-based phenomenon.
On Hamlington’s charts, for example, the very strong El Niño events of 1982-83 and 1997-98 clearly jump out in the West Coast data. While the tide gauge and satellite data largely agreed, the satellites seemed to slightly underestimate the El Niño-related rise.
Unsurprisingly the biggest seasonal effects on sea level came during the fall and winter months, when El Niño events typically reach their peak.
The sea level rise signature from El Nino events during the four seasons (top) and the satellite and tide gauge records showing spikes during El Nino years, particularly in 1982 and 1997.
Credit: Hamlington, et al./JGR: Oceans
Sea-level measurements from Fort Point in San Francisco since 1900. This is the longest continuous sea-level record for any site on the West Coast of North America.
Source: US Geological Survey, 1999. USGS Library Call Number: (200) F327 no. 99-175.
Construction of private homes on the frontal dunes. Homes in central Monterey Bay were threatened by erosion during the high tides, elevated sea levels, and large storm wave of the 1983 El Niño.
Photo courtesy of Gary Griggs, University of California, Santa Cruz
A huge wave breaks over the seawall at Fort Point under the Golden Gate Bridge and crashes onto a parked car on February 1, 1998. Throughout the following week, high winds and heavy rains combined with abnormally high tides to wreak havoc in the San Francisco Bay region. Inset photo shows a worker hauling sandbags through floodwaters in Sausalito, north of the Golden Gate Bridge, on February 7. U.S. Geological Survey scientists have shown that these extreme conditions were the direct result of the 1997—98 El Niño atmospheric phenomenon. (Photos by Lea Suzuki and Vince Maggiora / copyright San Francisco Chronicle.)
El Niño conditions, because of the higher sea levels, cause problems for the endangered Snowy Plover (in addition to it's many other problems) and sand loving shorebirds.
The impacts of El Niño (ENSO) winter storm events have not been mentioned in earlier plover monitoring reports, but the resultant beach erosion could be a contributing factor in reducing available nesting habitat. It may also affect over winter survival rates of potential breeding adults, thus causing a decline in breeding population the following summer. Figure 2 shows a recurring pattern of decreased total number of breeders in years following ENSO events. This trend would support the need for large scale habitat restoration at Point Reyes and further investigation into the impacts of climate change on Western Snowy Plovers.
This study shows problems for other shorebirds.
During an El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) event (1997–1998), the extent of sandy habitat was greatly reduced and intertidal habitat was mostly converted to rocky substrate. The overall abundance of shorebirds and the mean abundance of some common species (e.g. sanderling) were depressed, and an uncommon species (surfbird, A. virgata) was unusually abundant during the ENSO event. In summary, the results suggest that sandy beaches are important habitat for many species of shorebirds…
There is further proof that El Niño conditions also affect migratory birds.
We found that migratory birds that over-wintered in South America experienced significantly drier environments during El Niño years, as reflected by reduced Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) values, and arrived at stopover sites in reduced energetic condition during spring migration. During El Niño years migrants were also more likely to stopover immediately along the northern Gulf coast of the southeastern U.S. after crossing the Gulf of Mexico in small suboptimal forest patches where food resources are lower and migrant density often greater than larger more contiguous forests further inland.
It doesn't appear to me that California can handle a strong El Niño that involves strong storms with lot's of rain. Recently the remnants of Hurricane Dolores caused some damage in Southern California.
A rare and powerful rainstorm has drenched parched southern California, simultaneously wreaking havoc on major roadways and power lines while helping firefighters gain control of a wildfire that broke out on Friday.
Heavy rains on Saturday and Sunday closed beaches and knocked out power for many southern California residents. The storm rained out a Los Angeles Angels home game for the first time in two decades. The San Diego Padres home game has also been postponed due to inclement weather.
A bridge along Interstate 10, a major freeway connecting southern California and Arizona, washed out on Sunday amid the deluge in the desert. The collapse injured one driver and left hundreds of other cars stranded. It also cut off traffic in both directions, brining travel to a grinding halt.
Coastal communities along the U.S. East Coast may be at risk to higher sea levels accompanied by more destructive storm surges in future El Niño years, according to a new study by NOAA. The study was prompted by an unusual number of destructive storm surges along the East Coast during the 2009-2010 El Niño winter.
From 1961 to 2010, it was found that in strong El Niño years, these coastal areas experienced nearly three times the average number of storm surge events (defined as those of one foot or greater). The research also found that waters in those areas saw a third-of-a-foot elevation in mean sea level above predicted conditions.
Fires in southeast Asia, droughts in eastern Australia, flooding in Peru often accompany El Niño events. Much of the media coverage on El Niño has focused on the more extreme and negative consequences typically associated with the phenomenon. To be sure, the impacts can wreak havoc in some developing and developed countries alike, but El Niño events are also associated with reduced frequency of Atlantic hurricanes, warmer winter temperatures in northern half of U.S., which reduce heating costs, and plentiful spring/summer rainfall in southeastern Brazil, central Argentina and Uruguay, which leads to above-average summer crop yields.
After writing this lengthy article what will it be? Disaster or relief? We will just have to wait and see. It does mean that we will see the hottest year ever. Good luck everybody wherever you are. Hope for the best. I will be on the beach observing it all.
UPDATE–11/18/2015. The 2015 El Niño just crossed into record territory
It's been likened to Godzilla for a reason — the 2015 El Niño event, which can be found amid overheated waters of the central and eastern Pacific Ocean, has crossed a threshold into record territory.
The weekly index of average temperature departures from average across the central and eastern equatorial tropical Pacific has exceeded 3 degrees Celsius, or 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit, above average for the first time since this index began in 1990, according to new data released on Monday.
This data would suggest that the El Niño that forecasters have said would rank in the top three events ever recorded, has already hit the top spot. But that's not quite the case, since official El Niño strength rankings are based on longer-term averages, specifically, a three-month average.
UPDATE–5/8/16- So did the Godzilla El Niño help relieve our drought in California? Here's the latest map.
“The storm starts, when the drops start dropping
When the drops stop dropping then the storm starts stopping.”