Could a New El Niño Already Be Headed Our Way?

Storm surf in Seal Beach
Storm surf in Seal Beach

Don't look now, but another El Niño weather phenomenon could be brewing in the Pacific.

A computer model used by federal forecasters suggests that a warming of the waters along the equatorial Pacific could blossom into a weak to moderate El Niño by fall, according to Jin-Yi Yu, an earth system science professor and El Niño expert at UC Irvine.

El Niño is twice as likely to appear in the coming months compared with a normal year, Australia's Bureau of Meteorology reports. "There are signs that El Niño may develop in 2017," according to the agency.

The phenomenon has been known to send the jet stream slamming into the Southern California coast with plenty of precipitation picked up in the tropics along the way. However, even a strong El Niño doesn't guarantee a rainy winter in Southern California.

Amid much hype, a historically significant El Niño struck the West Coast with heavy rains in 2015 and 2016, but it largely missed SoCal. The current rain season has been El Niño–free (experts say it started out with a mild, cold-water La Niña, then neutralized) — yet the season has seen near-record precipitation.

In other words, a mild to moderate El Niño might not be anything to get excited about. "Usually California winter rainfall is affected when El Niño is very strong," Yu says. "This one doesn't seem to have that much strength yet. It's uncertain if it will bring more rainfall to California."

Still, weather watchers are stoked. Having two El Niños (2015-16 and possibly next winter) so close together is unusual, says National Weather Service meteorologist Robbie Munroe. "I believe we've already seen some warming in the eastern portions of the equatorial Pacific," he says. "This could signal the early stages of an El Niño."

Unfortunately, "We're still pretty far out in terms of predicting what will happen," he says.


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