Here Are 5 Institutions That Got El Niño Dead Wrong

With the El Niño weather phenomenon expected by experts to come to an end this summer, it's pretty clear that breathless predictions of a historically wet winter for Los Angeles were woefully inaccurate.

As winter approached, the idea was that this El Niño, characterized by nearly record warm waters along the equatorial Pacific, would mimic those of 1983 and 1998 and send a precipitation-packed jet stream into Southern California, causing historic rainfall.

Instead we have seen 6.83 inches of rainfall in downtown L.A. this season, less than half of normal, according to the latest data from the National Weather Service. (Depending on how you measure the season, rain was also slightly above half of normal.)

Even the most reasonable predictions of a wet winter for the region were off. El Niño delivered. Just not here.

Near-normal to above-normal rain was seen in Northern California and the Pacific Northwest as the jet stream rarely came knocking in SoCal. In fact, we saw the hottest February on record when it came to daily high temperatures. Most of Los Angeles County remains under "exceptional drought" conditions. The last of the area ski resorts still running on winter snow shut down for the season earlier this month.

So, when it comes to El Niño predictions, who got it wrong? 

5. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center. Even one of the most conservative predictions of a wet winter called for a 60 percent chance for above-average rainfall in Southern California. Not even close.

4. Local forecasters. TV news forecasters were all too eager to get on the El Niño train. Batten down the hatches, they said. Prepare for a biblical deluge, they said. 

"If you’ve been paying close attention, you know the NBCLA weather team has been saying for months that we should be prepared for February and March," stated L.A.'s NBC affiliate in January. "Everything is still on track for that time frame."

Guess not.

3. Government officials. Local leaders bought into the hype like rubes at a time-share pitch. In November, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said, "While we can never completely accurately predict the weather, it's about a 95 percent certainty that we will (see) a huge impact from El Niño this season.''


He appeared to be misinterpreting this Climate Prediction Center statement: "There is an approximately 95 percent chance that El Niño will continue through Northern Hemisphere winter 2015-16, gradually weakening through spring 2016."

Los Angeles County government officials started an El Niño web portal that has information on winter shelters, road closures, downed trees, plus info on how to protect pets and livestock from the storms that never came.

There's probably little downside to preparing for the worst except, of course, for the possible cost to taxpayers. But if leaders didn't prepare and we did get hit with massive storms, there would have been political hell to pay.

2. The Los Angeles Times. The publication, once SoCal's beacon of sober analysis, sometimes read like TMZ for weather. The paper picked up on Jet Propulsion Laboratory climatologist Bill Patzert's observation that this season's Southern California rains had "the potential of being the Godzilla El Niño."

The term Godzilla El Niño was used in banner headlines around the nation, and one L.A. Times report even stated, with little qualification, that "A 'Godzilla' El Niño is on the way." Times headlines included, "A huge El Niño could devastate Southern California" and "Massive El Niño is now 'too big to fail,' scientist says."

The paper might have relied too much on one expert (below) who had the most bullish vision of a wet season.

1. Bill Patzert, the climatologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Pasadena, was the scientist with the most dire predictions about winter rain in Southern California.

His Godzilla quote, above, was wisely tempered with the word "potential," but as the winter wore on and the deluge never came, Patzert doubled down.

"We're looking good for March and April," he told the Times in February.

Patzert, citing late-season rains in 1983 and 1998, continued to hold onto his forecast for a soaking. He called for a "second peak" in the El Niño pattern that would redeem his assessment. "I think El Niño will live up to its hype, but you have to be patient," he said 

In a recent report published by the Riverside Press-Enterprise, Patzert sounded downright defensive:

Don’t think that this was not Godzilla El Niño because it didn’t deliver in Southern California. That means you’re taking El Niño too personally. You’ve got to look at the big picture.

Just because it was a gecko in Riverside doesn’t mean it wasn’t a Godzilla elsewhere.

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