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California’s Drought-Busting Hope, El Niño, Looks Less Likely

Zachary Collier-Flickr
Photo credit: Zachary Collier/Flickr
(New Melones Lake, near Sonora, Calif., is well below normal after years of drought conditions.)

Just when you thought the drought in California couldn’t get any worse, it looks like the much anticipated El Niño — slated to be in full effect this winter — is much less likely to as strong as originally anticipated.

So, why does this matter for California? Here’s the deal: During past periods of El Niño, the West Coast was wetter than normal. And, in general, the stronger the El Niño, the greater the likelihood of more soaking-type weather events, which would be welcome news for a state that’s in the grips of historic three-year drought. Unfortunately, long-tern relief doesn’t appear to be on the horizon; nearly 60 percent of the Golden State is classified under “exceptional drought” conditions — the worst on the U.S. Drought Monitor rating scale.

Here’s what Mike Halpert, deputy director at the Climate Prediction Center (CPC), told USA Today, “There is a 60 to 65% chance of an El Niño.”

Cali-Nevada Drought

That may sound good, but it’s unlikely this upcoming El Niño will be strong enough to allow California to reap any significant benefits from a change in wintertime weather patterns.

“Most of the models continue to predict El Niño to develop during September-November and to continue into early 2015. A majority of models and the multi-model averages favor a weak El Niño,” said the CPC in a Sept. 4 forecast discussion.

Even with the likelihood of a weakened event, there’s still a 33 percent chance of El Niño won’t develop at all. This latest information if a far cry from the language used earlier in the year, when scientists saw the possibility of strong El Niño and the potential for significant drought relief in the West.

What’s El Niño?

El Niño is a “warm phase” in the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). ENSO refers to the surface temperature of equatorial Pacific waters and changes in surface pressure. According to the State Climate Office of North Carolina, “the warmer waters essentially slosh, or oscillate, back and forth across the Pacific, much like water in a bath tub.”

These changes in water temperature also affect the atmosphere and weather patterns shift. In the case of a strong El Niño, the Desert Southwest is much wetter than normal.

As additional forecast updates regarding ENSO come out, WeatherNation meteorologists will bring you the latest.

Meteorologist Alan Raymond

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