Hopes high for a ‘Super’ El Niño

The weather phenomenon could bring rain but also mudslides and drought to the different regions of the West.

 

El Niño is upon us and it’s shaping up to be a big one – so big that scientists have amused themselves coming up with new terms for the coming weather phenomenon. Bill Patzert of NASA coined the term “Godzilla El Niño.” Another meteorologist from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) who loves kung fu compared it to famed martial arts star Bruce Lee.

El Niño, which is Spanish for “the baby,” is a weather phenomenon that occurs every two to seven years when the Pacific Ocean water west of Peru warms, throwing global weather patterns out of whack (think more storms, droughts and heat waves). 

This year, many global weather models are signaling that we’re in for a whopper of an El Niño. In fact, some indicate that we appear to be on track to experience one of the strongest El Niños on record. Still, Klaus Wolter, a climate scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder, cautions against getting too caught up in the hype. “There’s always a race for the biggest epithet,” he says. El Niños can vary in strength, and it’s impossible to know yet just how big a punch this one will deliver. The latest models show the current El Niño as the second strongest on record for this time of year (it typically peaks in winter), but some models have scaled back their predictions of a "Super" El Niño. That's not uncommon: Last year, the odds of a “Super” El Niño occurring diminished substantially — from close to 80 percent earlier in the summer down to 65 percent by August.

In short, nothing is guaranteed. But, if this year’s El Niño does live up to its name(s), here’s what the West can expect: 

California

With over 90 percent of the state in severe drought or worse, Californians are praying this year’s El Niño will deliver the kind of rain that occurred in 1998, the strongest El Niño ever recorded. February of that year brought 13.68 inches of rain to Los Angeles — about a year’s worth — and made it the wettest February since the city began record-keeping more than 130 years ago. That’s potentially good news for the drought, but in areas that have seen extensive wildfires, that kind of rain could bring devastating mudslides.

Just how much El Niño alleviates California’s drought will likely depend on its strength. As sea temperatures warm in the eastern Pacific, storms moving towards California pick up more moisture, which means more rain (and hopefully snow) dumped along the Sierra Mountains. “It’s like opening a valve,” Wolter says. But unless it’s a really strong El Niño, most of the precipitation will go to Southern California. That would help farmers in the parched Imperial Valley, but won’t do much for the overall water supply, since almost all the storage reservoirs lie in the northern part of the state. If, however, a “super” El Niño does hit, according to Wolter, “it’s like opening an out-of-control fire hose,” swinging back and forth wildly from the force of the water, potentially even drenching the northern part of the state.

In California, models show a strong correlation between very strong El Niños and wetter than normal weather. Weaker El Niños tend to be drier.
Klaus Wolter

Pacific Northwest

After a dry winter and a blistering summer, the Pacific Northwest is desperate for rain, but unlike California, Washington and Oregon are unlikely to benefit from this winter’s El Niño. Same deal for states east of them, like Idaho and Montana. Forecasts are calling for another low-snowpack year, putting more pressure on already stressed-out salmon, ski resorts, and hydropower that cities like Seattle depend on. Slightly more rain could arrive if El Niño turns into the big one because the “fire hose” effect could reach the more northern parts of the West Coast.

Southwest

In contrast to the Northwest, El Niño means good news for Arizona and New Mexico (though as the recent flash flood deaths in Utah reveal, heavy rain in desert areas can be dangerous too).  They’ll likely see a wet winter and spring. Similarly, in the southern Rockies, El Niño will tilt the odds in favor of a snowy winter, a boon to ski resorts that make up much of the region’s tourism economy. However, more central and northern parts of the Rockies, extending into Wyoming, will probably suffer relatively dry winters – until spring that is, when El Niño could deliver some mega-storms.

Overall, the prognosis is mixed for the fragile Colorado River Basin and its shrinking reservoirs. Decades of over-allocation and a 15-year warm spell have pushed Lake Mead just inches from unprecedented mandatory water restrictions. In general, the pattern of past El Niños does not correlate well with total runoff, says Wolter, since dry winters tend to cancel out wet springs. But as this year proved, a spring boost could give the Basin states some breathing room.

Note: this article has been corrected to reflect the fact that although some models have scaled back the odds of a "Super" El Niño, the drop from 80 percent to 65 percent occurred last year, not this year.

Sarah Tory is an editorial fellow at HCN.  

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...
  • FOREST STEWARDSHIP PROJECT DIRECTOR
    Become a force for nature and a healthy planet by joining the Arizona Chapter as Forest Stewardship Project Director. You will play a key role...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ranchers Stewardship Alliance is accepting applications for an Executive Director. This position will provide leadership to RSA, develop a fund raising plan, and effectively communicate...
  • WRITING PLACE: THE ANIMAS RIVER REGION WRITING WORKSHOP
    REGISTER ONLINE BY: Friday, June 15 WHERE: Durango, CO (location TBD) WHEN: Monday, July 16 Youth workshop: 10 a.m. - 12 p.m. (18 and under,...
  • EQUITY IN THE OUTDOORS COORDINATOR
    The Equity in the Outdoors Coordinator will lead community engagement, program implementation and development, and data collection for the Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement (EVOM). EVOM...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a personable individual who is passionate about conservation to join our Sandpoint Field Office. The Community Engagement Assistant will...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • EXPERIENTIAL EDUCATION INTERN/ASSISTANT
    Actively introduce students to Experiential Education, Outdoor Recreation, and Sustainability while engaging and challenging them to learn and participate in these diverse opportunities. Room, board,...
  • ENVIRONMENTAL INVESTIGATIVE MEDIA SERVICES
    In-depth investigations of polluters, lobbyists, regulators, elected officials and others focused on environmentally damaging projects in the U.S. and internationally. We specialize in mining projects,...
  • UNDEVELOPED 40 ACRES - SOUTHWEST COLORADO
    in beautiful Montezuma County.
  • TRUCK DRIVER
    Class A & B drivers, pass all DOT requirements and clean driving record
  • MARIA'S BOOKSHOP FOR SALE
    - Thriving Indie bookstore in the heart of Durango, Colorado. General bookstore with 34-year history as a community hub for Southwest region of CO. 1800...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    HawkWatch International seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our awesome team! This position will provide support in all aspects of the department. We are looking...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    will develop and execute Wild Utah Projects fundraising plan. Call, email or check full description of job online for more details:
  • HAND CRAFTED LOG HOME IN TETON VALLEY
    on ten acres. Full view of the Grand Teton. 35 miles to Yellowstone and 20 minutes to Grand Targhee Ski Area.
  • ACREAGE WITH HOME, SHOP, BARN FOR SALE!
    Must see for sng/extd fam or corp retreat in pines! $1,030,000
  • WESTERN REGIONAL MANAGER
    The American Forest Foundation seeks a smart and highly motivated candidate to join our Western conservation team. The Regional Manager supports the Regional Director to...