Should We Be Expecting El Niño to Blow Us Away With Rain?
California's record-setting drought has been so bad that people are actually hoping for a stormy El Niño winter.
Be careful what you wish for. The wet El Niño of 1982-83 took down piers, flooded beach communities and caused $8 billion in damage throughout the Pacific region.
Some breathless reports this week indicate that maybe we should be expecting such an El Niño, or at least one like the winter of 1997-98, when snow graced local mountains well into May.
Amir AghaKouchak, UC Irvine hydrologist, engineer and climatologist, is an expert in such matters. He says it's too soon to tell.
But he does admit that the signs so far are pointing in the direction of a strong El Niño winter and spring. The biggest sign is that the waters of the equatorial Pacific are much warmer than normal.
In the past this has pointed to juicy El Niño years. But sometimes it hasn't, AghaKouchak says.
The National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration earlier this month gave us its best shot:
There is a greater than 90 percent chance that El Niño will continue through Northern Hemisphere winter 2015-16, and around an 80 percent chance it will last into early spring 2016.
... Nearly all models predict El Niño to continue into the Northern Hemisphere winter 2015-16, with many multi-model averages predicting a strong event
This week the Australian government's Bureau of Meteorology concurred:
All international climate models surveyed by the Bureau of Meteorology indicate El Niño is likely to strengthen, and is expected to persist into early 2016.
However, AghaKouchak cautioned that computer models to predict such long-term atmospheric behavior are inaccurate. Think of it this way: As it is, weather scientists can barely predict what's going to happen a few weeks out.
There are so many variables when it comes to weather that, for now, it's virtually impossible to say with certainty what kind of winter we'll have next month, let alone next season.
"We don't have a lot of confidence in these models," the professor says. "Last year we also had an El Niño prediction. That didn't happen."
Are we in hot water?
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AghaKouchak admits that the chances of an El Niño are good. But then, on top of that, you have to gamble on whether or not it will be a strong, wet one.
Stormy El Niños create low-pressure systems off California and high-pressure systems on the western side of the ocean, which can work like a machine to send "Pineapple Express"–style storms into our coastline.
"The ocean water temperatures are a lot warmer than average," AghaKouchak says. "The question is how long they will remain warm. That we don't know.
"If you compare the ocean temps back then [in 1983 and '98] and now, it looks like we are heading toward a strong or very strong El Niño," he adds. "But it's still early to say."
If you're feeling lucky, don't repair that leaky convertible top. If you believe in science, maybe you should.