Evidence mounts for El Nino that could ease Calif. drought

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)
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)
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)
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)
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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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