California banks on El Nino as parts of U.S. combat flooding

Updated Jan 5, 2016
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts wetter-than-average conditions for central and southern California. Photo: NOAAThe National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts wetter-than-average conditions for central and southern California.
Photo: NOAA

David Rountree headshot-2It has been a long time now since scientists began talking about the potential strength of the El Nino event that’s making itself felt in most of the nation’s weather forecasts. On a visit to California this past July, I asked several residents of the San Diego area if they thought El Nino could overcome four years of drought.

Their answers invariably were hopeful about the prospect of receiving plentiful amounts of rain and snow, yet also mindful of how destructive floods and mudslides can be.

In other words, Californians are all too aware that El Nino can cut both ways. After all, they joined the rest of the country in watching the evening news last week, as the Mississippi and several other major rivers just kept on rising.

The main characteristic of El Nino is an increase in surface water temperatures in the equatorial waters of the Pacific Ocean. This disruption of the normal ocean-atmosphere system in the tropical Pacific can have important consequences for weather around the globe. Lately, that has included severe weather across much of the South.

Knowing the line Californians walk when it comes to El Nino, it was good to see a story in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times about the weather forecast for this week. The newspaper reported that a series of rain and snow storms were expected to begin late last night that could well last into next weekend.

Naturally, the reporter cited concerns about flash floods and “debris flows” following heavy rainfall, as well as dangerous travel conditions in areas affected by the anticipated snow storms. It sounds as though this week will be a good introduction to conditions that are supposed to last through March.

Best of all, while a federal weather expert told the Times this week’s rains would probably represent “a pretty dramatic whiplash” compared with an unusually dry October and November, neither the heavy rains nor snowstorms are currently expected to unleash mudslides or major flooding.

And that’s just what California needs from this powerful El Nino: Extraordinary amounts of water and snowpack, with just enough respite between weather events to prevent catastrophes. After four years of near-relentless drought, we’re certainly hoping for that Goldilocks outcome for the Golden State.

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