El Nino

Cars move slowly along the northbound 14 freeway in the Santa Clarita area Wednesday as storm clouds and rain pass over the area. (Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times)

By Rong-Gong Lin II
September 10, 2015

El Niño is on track to become one of the most powerful on record, strongly suggesting California could face heavy rainfall this winter, climate scientists say.

But El Niño still hasn’t sealed the deal, and there still needs to be a dramatic change in the winds in the Pacific Ocean if it is to be as strong as it might be, said Bill Patzert, climatologist for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge.

“It’s still very impressive, but it’s a marathon with an El Niño,” Patzert said. “At 20 miles, do you hit the wall? Or do you pick up the pace?”

At this point, El Niño is strong and could be even stronger than the 1997-98 event, which brought heavy rain and deadly flooding and mudslides across California, and gave the south of the state double its rainfall and the mountains double the snowpack.

The latest government El Niño forecast, issued by the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center on Thursday morning, said that computer models unanimously favor a strong El Niño, and that there is a 95% chance that El Niño will continue through the winter — essential if California is to benefit from increased rainfall as the state experiences its fourth year of punishing drought.

The Climate Prediction Center’s deputy director, Mike Halpert, said Thursday that sea-surface temperatures in a benchmark location of the Pacific Ocean are now exceeding 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above the average. Those are the highest temperatures recorded “for the first time since the end of the 1997-98 El Niño.”

“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,” said Daniel Swain, climate scientist with Stanford University, by email. “At this juncture, the likeliest outcome for California is a wetter-than-average winter.”

California could therefore receive stronger storms than typical, especially between December through March, Swain recently wrote in a blog post. And with sea temperatures particularly warm offshore, that could bring even more atmospheric moisture to fuel storm systems bound for this state.

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