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Did the El Nino predictions get it all wrong?



Perhaps no other weather event in recent memory has been more anticipated than this year’s El Nino. From the first media rumblings that it was coming, in 2014, to the “monster El Nino” hyperbole that was still current as recently as last December, Californians have been warned by the experts about floods, mudslides, service disruptions and other forms of mayhem caused by the warming of ocean temperatures in the southwestern Pacific, which in theory should drench us here on the West Coast. El Nino “should scare the shit out of the West Coast,” Thrillist headlined just last month.

Otherwise sober-minded media outlets like the San Jose Mercury-News ran how-to-cope-with-El Nino checklists to help readers save their lives and property, as if in an earthquake or hurricane: get sandbags, keep rain gutters free of debris, and register for emergency alerts on your T.V. or smart device. Local mayors asked California Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency even before the rains came.

But guess what? After decent rains in December and January, during which San Francisco had nearly 11 inches of rain—almost 50% of the annual average–February has turned out to be a bust. As I write this (Feb. 21), San Francisco has had 0.83” of rainfall for the month so far, well short of the average 3.25 inches. We’ve had so many record high temperatures—from the 90s in the deserts to the mid-80s in wine country–with little or rain at all, that photos of bathing-suit clad people enjoying California’s sandy beaches have been all over the newspapers. As a result, people are starting to wonder if El Nino has simply decided to stay away from California this year. Already, scientists are saying El Nino has “peaked” and is “waning.” This, despite the fact that the climate scientists were telling us last Fall that February and March would be the biggest months for rainfall. Predictably, the second-guessing has started. “’Godzilla El Nino’—What Happened?” asks one media outlet. “El Nino is almost dead,” declares Gizmodo.

We could still, of course, get drenched in March, making February an anomaly. But right now, it’s more a matter of hoping than expecting. The seven-day forecast for this week continues to be dry and sunny, with temperatures in San Francisco ranging from the low- to mid-70s. Concerning the climate scientists who predicted El Nino’s deluges, I can’t bring myself to come down too hard on them, because despite our significant advances in satellites, computer modeling and so on, long-range weather prediction is still imprecise. What does make me worry is that there remains in this country a stubborn residue of people who refuse to believe in the reality of climate change, or of human-influenced climate change. These same people are usually of an anti-science bent and are prone to superstition and resentment of scientific knowledge; they take pride in their irrationality as if it were an extension of their politics and religion. And this failure of the climate scientists (if failure it proves to be) in getting El Nino wrong will be enough to arm the know-nothings and enable them to say, “See, I told you. You can’t trust anything these ‘scientists’ say.”

  1. An analysis of El Nino forecasts as of January from Cliff Mass, the weather guru of the Pacific Northwest:

    Seems that the jet stream track has been a bit farther north than expected for an El Nino year with Seattle setting records for winter rainfall. Here in the Columbia Valley we’ve had very few days of our typical inversion fog because the constant storminess has kept the atmosphere mixed up.

  2. Also heavy rain in the Willamette Valley. We got 25 inches of rain, making it the wettest winter since 1940

  3. I wrote about La-La-Land having “[Pasadena] Chamber of Commerce postcard perfect” weather on New Year’s Day for the Rose Parade.

    Oh, sure, we’ve had a few rainy days since — but nothing exceptional.

    Our enviable cloudless sunny skies and daytime highs in the 70s and 80s (and even low 90s) degree weather continues — and with it, the drought.

    Nothing like 1997-98’s El Niño:

    Fortunately, the snow pack in the northern California mountain ranges (which provide so much of parched southern California’s drinking water) is running above normal.

  4. Bob Henry says:

    From Western Farm Press:

    “El Niño heads back to California this week after hiatus”


    “El Niño rain has a good chance to return and not be the dud it has been for the month of February,” [meteorologist Terry] Snow [of the Weather Advisory Service] says in his Feb. 27 report.

  5. Bob Henry says:

    From Capital Press (“The West’s Agriculture Weekly”)
    (posted April 15, 2016):

    “Here comes La Nina, meteorologists say”

    “In the midst of a major El Nino, federal meteorologists say its flip side, La Nina, is around the corner.

    “The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center reports that El Nino is weakening but likely to stick around a couple more months. At the same time, NOAA issued a formal watch for a fall arrival of La Nina.

    “Prediction center deputy director Mike Halpert said it often means dry weather for parts of California, which haven’t quite recovered from a four-year drought.

    “El Nino is the natural warming of parts of the Pacific that alters weather worldwide. La Nina, with cooler Pacific waters, often has opposite effects.

    “This El Nino which started a year ago has been one of the strongest on record.”

  6. Bob Henry says:

    Excerpt from the San Francisco Chronicle
    (June 20, 2016):

    “California Drought Bummer: Sierra Water Runoff Coming Up Short”

    By Kurtis Alexander

    The El Niño-fueled storms that coated the Sierra with nearly normal snow this winter brought blasts of hope to drought-weary California.

    But after the flurries stopped and the seasons changed, the melt-off from the high country has been swift and disappointingly scant, according to new water supply estimates from the state.

    The Department of Water Resources now projects that the mountains will produce about three quarters of normal runoff during the months of heaviest snowmelt, shorting the rivers and reservoirs that typically provide a third of California’s water — and cementing a fifth year of historic drought for the Golden State.

    The projections arrive alongside forecasts for potentially dry La Niña weather next winter. …

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