El Niño Update and Look Forward

May 17, 2016

As the 2015-2016 El Niño season comes to a close (see full NOAA recap here), this winter's climate phenomenon left Southern California parched and puzzled. Our region is typically accustomed to above average rainfall during El Niño conditions. However, to the dismay of sensationalistic journalists and scientists who predicted a "Godzilla El Niño," it didn't happen. In the April issue of Currents, we discussed cities like Seattle who expected a drier winter but actually received above average rainfall. Northern California also fared better than its southern counterpart. Total precipitation from October 2015 to March 2016 shows portions of the state where El Niño made an appearance (green) along with the regions (brown) left out; fortunately California's most critical reservoirs are in the north.

While recent news headlines discuss where El Niño made a splash, the headlines have already started to shift focus to La Niña. Historically La Niña usually follows El Niño and creates drier conditions in the Southland while wetter conditions move to the Pacific Northwest. In a lucid interview with KQED Science, meteorologist Jan Null talks about the complexity of predicting both El Nño and La Niña forecasts. Speaking about this years's El Niño and the impending La Niña, Null explains "First of all, the people on TV should not be jumping up and down crying Chicken Little like they did with El Niño. The impacts of El Niño were not particularly well forecast. Even in print media, in headlines, they all focused on the extreme end of a wet El Niño, and they didn't put in the range of solutions that were possible." Null calls this media phenomenon "click bait," meaning headlines and news media are designed to entice us to focus on the big headlines like "Godzilla El Niño," rather than understanding the complexity of factors and the complete range of possibilities.

In a recent Press Telegram report titled "Goodbye El Niño, hello La Niña, the 'diva of drought'." The article opens with a stark message, "As if drought-stricken Southern California's El Niño bust wasn't bad enough, now the experts say we're headed for a bona fide period of bone-dry weather." USA Today also ran a similar article titled "Farewell El Niño say hello to La Niña." One of the experts discussing La Niña, NASA Climatologist Dr. Bill Patzert, who was convinced of a "Godzilla El Niño" last fall explained "La Niña is the diva of drought, which is not what we want to see." However speaking about the chances of the "diva" exacerbating drought in the Golden State "The bottom line here is, be careful with statistics or with what normally would be expected. What I learned this winter is that normal is a cycle on a washing machine."

Despite the best efforts to predict weather patterns, El Niño has certainly eluded predictions and changed its course. What will be interesting in the coming months is whether or not strong predictions will be made for La Niña, and ultimately how those predictions play out next winter. Null explains November is the month to watch for in California. He also noted that two major flood years in California -- December 1955 and 1964 -- were La Niña years, leaving hope that the "diva" is unpredictable and may relieve the drought. In the meantime, refrain from "click bait" and look deeper into science-based news sources. It's anyone's guess as to what will transpire this winter.