WTF Happened to El Niño?

Some have predicted that a "Godzilla" El Niño would strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger this winter.

But so far, not so much.

The "hydrological" rainy season that started Oct. 1 has put downtown Los Angeles below average for precipitation this year, according to the National Weather Service. 

We've had 3.75 inches of rain downtown from Oct. 1 through yesterday, according to the NWS. Normal for that time is nearly 6 inches (5.98). Even looking at a more traditional "rainfall year," which starts July 1, we're nearly even.

Downtown has seen about 6.5 inches versus a normal amount of 6.27, according to the service. There we're ahead, but only because of unusually heavy summer rains not necessarily associated with a winter El Niño, said NWS meteorologist Joe Sirard.

We did get a freight train of El Niño storms earlier this month, including two fronts that brought significant rain and even flooding to some areas.

But so far Godzilla hasn't really been on the march.

El Niño is a warm-water phenomenon along the equatorial Pacific that opens the door to a subtropical jet stream, which can bring a succession of unusually wet storms to Southern California. Instead of getting our winter weather from the north, as usual, a strong El Niño will hit us with a "pineapple express" jet stream almost directly from the west.

So far that jet stream hasn't been striking us much (with the exception of those two earlier storms). 

High pressure, the most common reason we see warm temperatures and offshore winds, has essentially blocked the subtropical jet stream — so far.

"We've had kind of some ridging off the coast that's been causing systems to come down from the north" instead of from the west, Sirard said. "Still, there hasn't been a lot of rain for L.A. County. It's been focused on the Central Coast."

Indeed. But experts aren't ruling out a heavy El Niño rain year — yet.

"Up until this time we can't say El Niño hasn't produced the impact we expect," said Jin-Yi Yu of UC Irvine's Department of Earth Systems. "It's still early to say it didn't bring the expected rainfall."

It's true: Although experts say January through March is prime El Niño turf, the phenomenon has been known to arrive late in years past. March has been particularly ferocious and, in 1998, local mountains had fresh snow into the spring months. 

"We have had years with a relatively dry winter with a lot of rain in March," said Amir AghaKouchak, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Irvine. "Still, there is a chance of extreme rainfall in the next two months."

In the near term, forecasters expect the drizzle we received overnight to have moved out completely by this afternoon. It will be replaced by high pressure and temperatures as high as the low 70s in the L.A. basin Thusday, says Sirard. 

A similar front will move down the coast Friday night and Saturday morning, bringing with it a 20 percent chance of rain and more high surf, he said.

Then we'll see more warmth through Tuesday, with possible highs in the mid-70s, Sirard said.

For the long term, he said, "We could still have a miracle in March. We got a little ways to go."

Cross your fingers.


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