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How El Niño Will Affect California

by Matthew Zamudio - Get free updates of new posts here

As summer winds down and the fall season approaches, the question of whether 2015 will be an El Niño year for California is increasingly relevant. El Niño, also known as El Niño Southern Oscillation or ENSO, is already taking place in the Eastern Pacific Ocean near the equator, but scientists and meteorologists are still unable to confidently confirm that the natural event will persist long enough to affect the west coast.

A multitude of variables such as wind, water temperature, and air pressure, all play a vital role in either encouraging El Niño to approach the California coastline or dissipating the event completely. Scientist Bill Patzert, climatologist for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge, highlights El Niño’s fickle nature explaining, “It’s a marathon with El Niño. At 20 miles, do you hit the wall? or do you pick up the pace?”

The last El Niño event, which spanned from 1997-1998, avoided the wall, barreling toward the west coast and unleashing a torrent of rainfall and snowfall on California that more than doubled the regular amount. Meteorological communities are predicting that this year’s El Niño, which has a 95% chance of persisting into the winter season and affecting California, will be even stronger than the “Godzilla El Niño” of 1997-1998, as Patzert calls it, and will bring thirsty California massive amounts of much needed rainfall in the form of frequent storms.

Considered a natural disaster, El Niño begins with weakened east to west trade winds over the Pacific Ocean. Without these trade winds moving at full speed, a pool of sun-warmed water accumulates in the center of the Pacific Ocean along the equator, causing a plume of warm air to form above it. Because of this shift, the high-pressure system that normally guards the west coast from unruly weather is broken down, and the plume of warm air over the central pacific is allowed to mix with colder air and create formidable storms – similar to tornado season in the Great Plains, when warm air from the Gulf of Mexico moves north and collides with cold air sweeping down from the plains.

For California, this means being put in the crosshairs of El Niño as it sends storm after storm after storm toward the state. For other places around the world, El Niño could spell disaster in the form of drought or famish as large populations of fish will either relocate or die. But will El Niño really visit us this winter? If anyone knows the answer to that question, it’s Daniel Swain, climate scientist at Stanford University, who says, “The present El Niño is already one of the strongest on record and is expected to strengthen further through the late fall or early winter months. At this juncture, the likeliest outcome for California is a wetter-than-average winter.”

The news sounds ideal for California, a state that has been suffering from a four year drought which has taken an incalculable toll on the state’s geological and financial reserves. But the idea of torrential rainfall over California comes with many unpredictable dangers, such as deadly flooding, mud slides, debris flow, and structural damages.

“All of this suggests that there could be a substantially increased risk of precipitation-related hazards this winter in California, including flooding and landslides,” Swain wrote in a blog post.

To get an idea of what this year’s El Niño might look like, we must examine the effects of the 1997-1998 El Niño, which killed an estimated 2,100 people globally and racked up a bill of 33 billion dollars in damages. California, particularly, was assaulted with colossal coastal storms, causing dangerous flooding, destructive landslides, and damages to the state’s valuable agriculture amounting to 1 billion dollars statewide. Southern states like Florida and Texas, were struck by several tornadoes and severe rainstorms, which are very uncommon occurrences during the winter season. By the end of May 1998, the national death toll caused by El Niño was 189 – 17 of those from California.

The international impacts of the 1997-1998 El Niño were numerous, too. Specifically in Peru, where much of the economy relies on agriculture and fishing, El Niño wreaked havoc on fishing villages where fishermen were unable to catch fish and on farming hamlets where farmers watched their crops turn into waist-deep swamps. Peruvian families found themselves either broke or homeless, victims of nature’s rage during her unpredictable oscillation.

El Niño is happening as I write, and while the brunt of the natural event has not yet hit California, the state has already been affected. Remnants of Hurricane Dolores (caused by El Niño) produced extreme rainfall over California, causing flooding so severe that a bridge along Interstate 10 near Palm Springs was obliterated and rendered useless. The same storm also caused diamond-sized particles of hail to pour onto Interstate 80 near Lake Tahoe. If these events are any indication of what is to come this winter, this year’s El Nino should belittle the “Godzilla El Niño” of 1997-1998.

Bearing more energy than a million Hiroshima bombs, El Niño is not something to shrug off. If what science is telling us is true, California should expect an El Niño bigger than has ever been experienced before this winter, and must be ready for the potentially disastrous repercussions that come with it. After having been in a drought for so long, California is subject to a higher chance of deadly geographic events than if it were to have had normal rainy seasons in years prior. With many dead trees lying about after several forest fires and other drought-induced debris scattered across the state, the practical guarantee of flooding presents life-threatening dangers to all but those living on the apex of a mountain.

Landslides, too, are a threat to California roadways all over the state. Much of the rock and sedimentary material which lines virtually every major roadway in California will become loosened from its dry state as soon as the downpour begins. As if flooded roads weren’t enough, drivers will have stay attentive as they avoid toppling rocks and flows of mud as they drive through a state under nature’s siege.

While El Niño is dangerous, it is extremely beneficial to a state in need of water. Surfers along the west coast will also find happiness in the fact the ENSO conditions will produce plenty of waves, due to storm-induced winds and rare swell. It is a mistake, though, to write off California’s drought problem in hopes that El Niño will save the day – because it won’t. El Niño will provide California with a much needed drenching, but the water we’ll receive from it will only partially replenish the reserves we’ve so ignorantly expended. What the future holds for California is all but known, but the possibility of what could happen is good enough a reason to expect 2015 to be the year of the next El Niño Southern Oscillation. As the iconic Bob Dylan would say, “A hard rain’s gonna fall.”

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