Don’t Get Too Excited About That Giant El Niño

Excitement has been building for the massive El Niño heading toward the drought-stricken western U.S., but scientists say the hype is premature.

The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration said it expects this year’s El Niño, a periodic warming event in the Pacific Ocean known for dumping rainfall in California and other parts of the West, to be one of the three strongest on record. That makes a wet winter likely — but not a sure thing.

“While it does point us in a direction, it doesn’t promise anything,” Mike Halpert, the deputy director of the Climate Prediction Center, said in a phone call with reporters Thursday. “We’ve done our best, from NOAA’s point of view, to try to stick to what we understand and what we can say and really stay out of the hype that ‘This is the strongest El Niño and this is what it means.'”

If El Niño brings a wet winter, its effects might not be felt strongly outside Southern California.

“While a strong El Niño signal helps reduce the uncertainty around [California's high weather] variability, making the wet winter more likely in Southern California, it really offers less predictability for a wetter than normal winter in Northern California, a region where it can have the greatest impact in the drought,” NOAA hydrologist Alan Haynes said. “Also, remember that El Niño increases the chances for drier and warmer weather in the Pacific Northwest, where drought has started to develop.”

The California Department of Water Resources also has played down the El Niño, urging people to look at its effects historically.

“Six strong El Niño events since 1950 produced wet conditions in Southern California, but only the strongest ones in water years 1983 and 1998 brought significant precipitation throughout the state,” a press —> Read More