Understanding El Niño and its potential this winter - KSBY.com | San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Area News

Understanding El Niño and its potential this winter

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California needs rain. After four years of historic drought, reservoirs are critically low and the state has even implemented a billion-dollar emergency plan to combat the drought.

This year, we have a strong El Niño, even called a "Godzilla" El Niño by some. Is that the kind of thing that could cure the drought? Experts doubt it.

An El Niño, simply put, is when the Pacific Ocean waters are warmer than average. That warmer than average water typically changes the position of the jet stream, bringing together a sub-tropical moisture supply and low pressure. In some El Niños, that re-direction slams Southern California and the Central Coast with rain.

Central Coast residents have been hammered by El Niño plenty of times since 1950. San Luis Obispo residents will never forget the 54.53" of rain in 1968-69, and that was from a weak El Niño. The 1982-83 El Niño produced a storm that tore apart the Avila Pier.

The 1997-98 El Niño produced 36.5" of rain in San Luis Obispo. It is the strongest El Niño on record, but this year is on pace and could be stronger. Looks like a slam dunk drought fixer, right?

"When Californians think about El Niño, they automatically think that drought is going to be over and that is not the case," said Brooke Bingaman, National Weather Service Meteorologist.
El Niño is not a slam dunk for rain. While strong El Niños almost always produce extra rain in Southern California, not all do on the Central Coast and the chances are even slimmer in Northern California, which sits in between wetter and drier signals.
"We need above normal rainfall, which will hopefully come with this El Niño, but we also need above normal snowpack," said Bingaman. "Our snowpack has been dismal the last couple years and an important statistic to remember is that a good snowpack is like three full Lake Shastas, so if we don't get that snowpack, that's not going to pull us out of the drought this year."

The average El Niño produces only about an inch-and-a-half more rain than normal for the Central Coast but this one certainly looks very strong. It is important to remember El Niño is more of a state of the ocean and atmosphere and not one large, strong system. We've actually been in an El Niño for about six months, but generally, the heaviest rains don't appear until December and typically last until March or April.

California is missing a year or two years worth of rain, and with that, concerns are high about the possible impacts of an El Niño. 

"People just have to realize that it can happen to them," said Jim Cantore, Weather Channel Meteorologist. "Secondly, if you live in a low lying area, if you live in an area that floods, if you live near a burn area, especially where there is a burn scar, you have to be ready for that because after we get into these successive events, where it is one right after the other, it is going to flood."

At the National Weather Service office in Oxnard, they not only have to get the word out about the overall potential this winter but also provide the calming perspective of seeing potential trouble before it happens with critical short-term forecasts. 
"We've heard terminology like 'Godzilla' or 'Super Strong El Niño' or whatever you want to call it," said Eric Boldt, NOAA Warning Coordination Meteorologist. "That's all kind of alarming. People really perk up when they hear that because they think it is going to come and attack us or something like that."
The heaviest El Niño rains come December through March, but intense storms can really develop any time now.
The advice from forecasters is to prepare now. You can insulate your home before the long winter, check the gutters and the integrity of your roof, and pick up sand bags to protect low spots long before you need them.
Cities and counties say they are about as ready as they can be, but it'll take a community effort.
"We need the citizens to be ready and do their part," said Chief Kurt Latipow, Lompoc Fire Department.
There are several cautionary tales about this year's El Niño that often get lost in the Godzilla hype -- while Southern California's forecast is highly likely for good rain, the confidence falls off the farther north you go, and some strong El Niños fail to produce heavy rain in Northern California.
While hopes are it could cure California's drought, most experts agree one rainy year won't be enough, and what comes after this El Niño might be even more critical.
"Unfortunately, in the past we've seen that following a wet, strong El Niño we've gone back into a drought. So we could be done with the wetness in one winter and go back into a dry pattern," said Boldt. 

Long range forecasts already call for El Niño to end in the spring. 

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