Evidence mounts for El Nino that could ease Calif. drought

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Scientist Says Massive El Nino Is 'Too Big to Fail'

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Evidence is mounting that the El Nino ocean-warming phenomenon in the Pacific will spawn a rainy winter in California, potentially easing the state's punishing drought but also bringing the risk of chaotic storms like those that battered the region in the late 1990s.

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In the clearest warning yet that Southern California could be due for a deluge, meteorologists said in a report last week that the already strong El Nino has a 95 percent chance of lasting through the winter before weakening in the spring.

"This is as close as you're going to get to a sure thing," said Bill Patzert, a climatologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, calling this El Nino "too big to fail."

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Evidence mounts for El Nino that could ease Calif. drought
NOAA has released an update to its El Niño advisory. This image shows the satellite sea surface temperature departure for the month of October 2015, where orange-red colors are above normal temperatures and are indicative of El Niño. This event is forecast to continue through the winter, likely ranking as one of the top 3 strongest events since 1950, before fading in late spring or early summer. El Niño has already produced significant global impacts, and is expected to affect temperature and precipitation patterns across the United States during the upcoming months. Seasonal outlooks generally favor below-average temperatures and above-median precipitation across the southern tier of the United States, and above-average temperatures and below-median precipitation over the northern tier of the United States. (Photo via NOAA)
This combo of images provided by NOAA (National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration), shows the three-month temperature, left, and precipitation forecasts for the U.S. Forecasters say this winter El Nino is about to leave a big wet but not necessarily snowy footprint on much of the United States, including parched California. NOAA on Thursday issued a winter forecast, heavily influenced by one of the strongest El Ninos on record. (NOAA via AP)
This combo of images provided by NOAA (National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration), shows the three-month temperature, left, and precipitation forecasts for the U.S. Forecasters say this winter El Nino is about to leave a big wet but not necessarily snowy footprint on much of the United States, including parched California. NOAA on Thursday issued a winter forecast, heavily influenced by one of the strongest El Ninos on record. (NOAA via AP)
These false-color images provided by NASA satellites compare warm Pacific Ocean water temperatures from the strong El Nino that brought North America large amounts of rainfall in 1997, left, and the current El Nino as of Oct. 1, 2015, right. Warmer ocean water that normally stays in the western Pacific, shown from cooler to warmer as lighter orange to red to white areas, moves east along the equator toward the Americas. Evidence is mounting that the El Nino ocean-warming phenomenon in the Pacific will spawn a rainy winter in California, potentially easing the stateâs punishing drought but also bringing the risk of chaotic storms like those that battered the region in the late 1990s. In the clearest warning yet that Southern California could be due for a deluge, meteorologists said in a report last week that the already strong El Nino has a 95 percent chance of lasting through the winter before weakening in the spring. (NASA via AP)
Roofer Chuck Jewett, right, and a worker with Hull Brothers Roofing & Waterproofing check a water leak from a an air condition unit before resurfacing a roof at town homes at the Marina del Rey seaside community of Los Angeles, Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2015. While drought-plagued California is eager for rain, the forecast of a potentially Godzilla-like El Nino event has communities clearing out debris basins, urging residents to stock up on emergency supplies and even talking about how a deluge could affect the 50th Super Bowl. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
MAKASSAR, SOUTH SULAWESI, INDONESIA - SEPTEMBER 21: Two girls are seen walk behind of dried up ricefield at Manggara Bombang village, Maros district on September 21, 2015 in Makassar, Indonesia. Indonesia's national disaster management agency has declared that the majority of the country's 34 provinces are experiencing drought caused by the El Nino weather phenomenon, the worst drought in the past five years. The dry season forces villagers to walk long distances to find clean water. (Photo by Agung Parameswara/Getty Images)
NOAA issued an update to the El Niño analysis on September 10, 2015, in which forecasters from the Climate Predication Center say a strong El Niño is in place and likely to peak in late fall/early winter, and gradually weaken through spring 2016. This image shows the satellite-based average sea surface temperature data from the week of August 31 - September 6, 2015. Blue areas are cooler than the 1981-2010 average; red areas are warmer than that historical base period. The large pool of warmer than average temperatures along the equatorial Pacific is indicative of the El Niño conditions. (Photo via NOAA)
Sea surface temperature anomalies in November 1997 (left) compared to July 2015 (right). (Photo via NOAA)
This June 19, 2015 aerial photo shows a white heron taking flight over revealed fish nests, normally inches below the waterline in La Plata reservoir in Toa Alta, Puerto Rico. Thanks to El Nino, a warming of the tropical Pacific Ocean that affects global weather, less rain fell to help refill Puerto Rico’s La Plata reservoir, as well as La Plata river in the central island community of Naranjito. A tropical disturbance that hit the U.S. territory on Monday did not fill up those reservoirs as officials had anticipated. (AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo)
This June 15, 2015 photo shows mud cracks at the drought affected Carraizo reservoir in Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico. Thanks to El Nino, a warming of the tropical Pacific Ocean that affects global weather, the worst drought in five years is creeping across the Caribbean, prompting officials around the region to brace for a bone dry summer. (AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo)
FILE - In this June 22, 2015 file photo, a combine moves on to the next field while an other makes its last cut while harvesting wheat near Andover, Kan. Concerns about the quantity and quality of the U.S. winter wheat crop and an El Nino weather pattern blamed for dry conditions in other wheat producing nations have sparked a recent run up in wheat prices. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner, File)
FILE - In this July 12, 2006 file photo, a Joshua tree is engulfed in flames as the Sawtooth Complex fire burns out of control near Yucca Valley, Calif. In the California desert, Joshua tree seedlings are shriveling up and dying before they get the chance to put down strong roots. The species has weathered threats before. In the 1990s, moist El Nino conditions triggered explosive growth of exotic grasses that established themselves and left the forests vulnerable to large-scale brush fires. One such blaze charred 14,000 acres in 1999.(AP Photo/Nick Ut, File)
A couple tries to cool off from the heat caused by El Nino with water overflowing from a defunct but still watery reservoir called the Wawa dam in Montalban in Rizal, east of Manila on February 21, 2010. El Niño was expected to dehydrate the Metro Manila area over in the next two months, according to the Philippine Atmospheric Geophysical Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa). Earlier this month the government warned a possible drought caused by the El Nino weather system could slash Philippines rice yields this year. AFP PHOTO / NOEL CELIS (Photo credit should read NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Tons of dead fish are seen on the banks of the Solimoes River due the water's low level, November 25, 2009 near Manaquiri, 120Km from Manaus. The dry season, affected by the weather phenomenon EL Nino, is worse this year. According a study from Brazil's universities USP,UNICAMP,UFRJ and Embrapa, the country could lose some USD 3.6 billion over the next 40 years. AFP PHOTO / ANTONIO SCORZA (Photo credit should read ANTONIO SCORZA/AFP/Getty Images)
This June 19, 2015 aerial photo shows the drought affected lakeshore of La Plata reservoir in Toa Alta, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico expanded water rationing across several municipalities as it continues to confront a drought of potentially historic proportions. Thanks to El Nino, a warming of the tropical Pacific Ocean that affects global weather, and a quieter-than-normal hurricane season that began in June, forecasters expect a shorter wet season. (AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo)
FILE - This Feb. 28, 2012 file photo shows a snow blower clearing a road after an overnight storm dropped several inches of snow near Echo Summit Calif. The weather forecast for this winter is mostly a shrug of the shoulders. For most of the nation, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts equal chances for unusual warmth, cold, snow, rain and even average weather. That’s because certain global weather factors, like El Nino, aren’t big and apparent. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)
FILE - In this Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2011 file photo, Texas State Park police officer Thomas Bigham walks across the cracked lake bed of O.C. Fisher Lake in San Angelo, Texas. A combination of the long periods of 100-plus degree days and the lack of rain in the drought-stricken region has dried up the lake that once spanned over 5400 acres. The year 2011 brought a record heat wave to Texas, massive floods in Bangkok and an unusually warm November in England. How much has global warming boosted the chances of events like that? Quite a lot in Texas and England, but apparently not at all in Bangkok, according to new analyses released Tuesday, July 10, 2012. Researchers calculated that global warming has made such a Texas heat wave about 20 times more likely to happen during a La Nina year. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
FILE - In this Feb. 24, 1998 file photo, a woman waits for a tow truck on the hood of her brother's pickup after a wall of mud plowed down Laguna Beach Canyon Road in Orange County, Calif. forcing her to evacuate her home, in background. A long anticipated El Nino weather warping is finally here. But for drought-struck California, it’s too little, too late, meteorologists say. The National Weather Service Thursday proclaimed the somewhat infamous weather phenomenon El Nino is now in place. It’s a warming of a certain patch of the central Pacific that changes weather patterns worldwide, associated with flooding in some places, droughts elsewhere, a generally warmer globe, and fewer Atlantic hurricanes. El Ninos are usually so important that economists even track it because of how it affects commodities. This year's El Nino that has arrived isn’t big and is late so it’s unlikely to do much to alleviate the current California drought. (AP Photo/Nick Ut, File)
Heavy clouds covers Indonesia's capital city of Jakarta on November 29, 2009. The month of November ends the dry season and starts the wet period but the weather bureau anticipates El Nino's dry spell to affect Indonesian weather. AFP PHOTO / Bay ISMOYO (Photo credit should read BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images)
FILE - In this Oct. 6, 2014 file photo, a dock sits high and dry at the end of a boat ramp yards away from the edge of Folsom Lake near Folsom, Calif. Don’t blame man-made global warming for the devastating California drought, a new federal report says. A report issued Monday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said natural variations _ mostly a La Nina weather oscillation _ were the primary drivers behind the drought that has now stretched to three years. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)
In this Monday Feb.22, 2010 photo, a fisherman works on his Tilapia farm at a lake in San Pablo, Laguna province south of Manila, Philippines as the country braces for a dry spell caused by El Nino phenomenon. On Friday Feb.26, 2010, with a reported fish kill in a dam in northern Philippines due to soaring temperatures, the Government's Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, BFAR, advises fish pond owners slowly being affected by the phenomenon, to harvest their matured fishes to avoid fish-kill. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)
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"In the abstract," he said, "El Nino seems like our savior." But if floods and mudslides develop, it's "not going to look like the great wet hope charging across the landscape on a white horse."

A strong El Nino arrives about once every 20 years. Ocean temperatures show this one to be the second-strongest since such record keeping began in 1950, said Eric Boldt, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. That would make it weaker than the El Nino of 1997-98 but stronger than the El Nino of 1982-83.

Both of those winters were known in California for relentless rain, strong winds and heavy snow. Waves pounded the coast, mudslides rolled down mountainsides and floods swamped homes and claimed lives.

Storms blamed on El Nino in 1997-98 killed at least 17 people, wiped out strawberry and artichoke crops, pushed houses off hillside foundations and washed out highways. Damage was estimated at more than $500 million.

The 1982-83 tempests left 36 people dead, damaged or destroyed more than 7,900 homes and businesses, and caused $1.2 billion in losses, according to the weather service.

The NASA lab has been observing El Nino and other ocean trends for decades. In 1992, JPL, in collaboration with France, launched the first in a series of satellites capable of observing the phenomena on a global basis.

Still, El Ninos can be unpredictable. Some have produced little rain, and some of the most damaging storms have come in non-El Nino years.

In the last 65 years, there have been just six strong El Ninos and only two produced major precipitation statewide, according to the California Department of Water Resources.

Weather models this year show a 60 percent chance of above-average rainfall in Southern California, but that figure declines farther north, Boldt said.

From the San Francisco Bay Area to Sequoia National Park, there's a 50 percent chance of above-average rainfall. From Eureka to north of Reno, Nevada, that estimate drops to 33 percent. It's likely to be drier in the Pacific Northwest and the northern Rocky Mountains.

California public agencies have been warned to prepare for large storms. Boldt said he can't count all the meetings he's been to with emergency managers and local officials.

"That's been pushed hard, and people understand this is going to potentially be a bad winter for water issues," he said.

State officials are watching weather models and updating emergency plans, said Kelly Huston, deputy director with the Governor's Office of Emergency Services.

"We worry that people won't take it seriously because they're so desperate for water," Huston said. "If it downpours heavily over a short period of time, it's going to be dangerous, not just a welcome relief they perceive to be helping the drought."

The risk of rain is heightened in some areas by recent wildfires that have stripped away the trees and other vegetation that protect steep slopes from erosion. Work is already being done to prevent debris flows in Northern California's Lake and Amador counties.

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Heavy rain will bring some drought relief, but it is not expected to erase the state's water deficit, particularly if it doesn't rain or snow as much in Northern California, home to the state's largest reservoirs. The Sierra Nevada snowpack is normally the backbone of the state's water supply.

There's also the chance that El Nino will be followed by its sister, La Nina, a different phenomenon that generally brings cooler temperatures in the Pacific and a drier winter.

El Nino can affect weather well beyond the West Coast. The outlook for winter generally favors below-average temperatures and above-median precipitation across the southern U.S. and above-average temperatures and below-median precipitation over the northern U.S., according to the report.

Federal climate and weather experts plan to issue an updated three-month seasonal outlook later this week.

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Associated Press Writer John Antczak contributed to this report.

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