This Year’s El Niño Will Be Epic But Still Won't Relieve California’s Drought

September 21, 2015 | Sarah Tse

Flooding in the Russian River, California after El Niño storms
Photo credit: FEMA News Photo

With unusual wind patterns brewing in the Pacific, meteorologists are already predicting that this year’s El Niño will be one of the strongest in recent history. But the oncoming rain is more likely to harm California than help it.

It’s time to buckle your seatbelts and hunker down for a record-breaking El Niño, based on recent reports by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This weather phenomenon affects different parts of the world in unique and sometimes unpredictable ways, alternately bringing hurricanes, flooding, droughts, and massive storms depending on location. This year’s El Niño has already gifted us with the hottest July on record, and climate change will strengthen its progressingly dramatic effect on worldwide weather.

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El Niño is a cyclical disturbance in the ocean-atmosphere system every 2 to 7 years, where the trade winds that normally blow west across the Pacific fall flat. As a result, the nutrient-rich cold water that normally swells up along the coasts of northern South America never reaches the surface, leaving that area much warmer than usual. Instead, warmer waters stretch across the surface of the Pacific, releasing energy into the atmosphere and causing widespread weather impacts.

But this year’s El Niño will be particularly interesting, according to satellite observations and computer models from NOAA. The disrupted wind and ocean current patterns seething in the Pacific Ocean are looking mighty similar to the two strongest El Niño events in recent history. Global warming has punched up the rise in ocean temperatures caused by this period in the cycle, which means the accompanying weather patterns will be more severe.

For one thing, those warm waters will bring torrents of heavy rainfall, which could help alleviate the drought and wildfires currently plaguing the western coast of North America. However, even an El Niño of this magnitude can’t completely replenish California’s bone-dry aquifers. Even worse, the soil may be so parched that it won’t be able to absorb the rainfall, which would cause flooding on top of the region’s debilitating drought. Still, any rainfall is better than none at all, so as El Niño bears down this winter, we can look forward to less disastrous circumstances in California and the southwestern US.

As for the rest of the USA, El Niño will likely keep winter relatively mild until it loosens its grip early next year, at which point we can expect frigid business as usual. But heavy rainfall this fall and early winter will prove to be much more of a curse than a blessing in areas that aren’t experiencing drought. NOAA warns residents of the mid-Atlantic states to prepare flooding, especially given rising sea levels.

On the other side of the Pacific, El Niño will have the opposite effect. Its temperamental shifts in wind patterns will sweep precipitation away from Australia, India, and Southeast Asia, leaving these areas at risk of severe drought and disastrous wildfires. The weather phenomenon has already abated India’s usual monsoon season, exacerbating a dry spell that has crippled the country’s farming regions. As El Niño continues to cut off the supply of rain to countries on the western side of the Pacific, the drought and its associated food shortages will likely worsen.

Not even areas far from the Pacific are safe from El Niño’s grip. While it brings warmer weather to its local countries, the shifting ocean currents have rippling effects throughout the world’s seas. The UK will receive a chilly blast from the Arctic Jet Stream as it flows up the eastern edge of the Atlantic. Meteorologists expect this current to usher in debilitating snowfall this winter, based on how the previous El Niño events affected the region.

El Niño, translated as “the boy,” received its name from Peruvian sailors, who noticed its warming effects around Christmas, thus naming it after the Christ child. Indeed, its irregular temper tantrums liken it to a particularly fussy toddler, or perhaps a hormonal teenager. These predictions for what El Niño will bring in the next few months are only based on previous records, and it’s just as possible for the weather disturbance to dissipate earlier than expected. But it doesn’t hurt to prepare for the worst.

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