Series of Pacific storms raises hopes for a wet El Niño season

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By Dennis Romero

LOS ANGELES — Southern California was in the midst of its fourth rain event of the season this week and with another expected next week, some experts believe the arrival of the weather phenomenon known as El Niño could be imminent.

While it may be too early to link the Pacific storms to El Niño, the federal Climate Prediction Center’s El Niño “diagnostics discussion” could make the call next week on Dec. 13.

If a full-on El Niño weather pattern is forming, it would mean an increased chance of more rain in California and a possible end to a moderate drought that has fueled wildfires throughout the state.

The linchpin of El Niño, consistently above-average warmth in the waters of the equatorial Pacific, is already present, scientists say. Federal forecasters are waiting for those waters to interact with the atmosphere and create storms before they declare El Niño’s presence.

“The temps are quite warm on the surface, but we’re just waiting for the atmospheric component to give us some storminess,” said Andrea Bair, climate services program manager for the Western region of the National Weather Service.

A man struggles against gusty wind and heavy rain as he walks along a pier on Feb. 17, 2017, in Huntington Beach, Calif. A major Pacific storm has unleashed downpours and fierce gusts on Southern California, triggering flash flood warnings and other problems.Jae C. Hong / AP

California state climatologist Mike Anderson says the storms that have struck California since late November resemble classic El Niño systems, which often soak up tropical moisture from the central Pacific before blasting the Golden State coast like a fire hose.

“Some of that includes the way the jet stream behaves,” he said. “It tends to zip across the Pacific in an east-west pattern. It’s also accelerated, and we see storms hit fairly quickly. We’re starting to see some of that take shape.”

Other experts say it’s too early in the season to attribute the storms to the weather pattern named for baby Jesus because its telltale warm waters often peak around Christmas.

The system’s rising air motion has been known to lead to above-average rainfall in the eastern Pacific Ocean.

It can also impact global weather patterns. In Australia, the phenomenon can mean less rain.

“El Niño has not formed yet,” said Jan Null, a former National Weather Service lead forecaster who is an expert on the phenomenon and believes it’s too early to make the call. “It’s still in the formative stages. [Determining] whether it’s having an effect on our weather now is problematic.”

And Bair, of the weather service’s Western region, said Southern California’s recent storm activity “does look like what we’d expect during an El Niño.” But she cautioned, “You can get those in any given year.”

Climate researchers say unusually warm waters off Southern California, where records were set in the summer and sea surface temperatures remain unusually high for the time of year, could boost the moisture for any systems that hit the coast. This isn’t necessarily tied to El Niño.

“Warmer coastal sea surface temperatures should enhance precipitation from some storms,” said Alexander Gershunov, research meteorologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Dennis Romero
2018-12-06 10:27:00

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