El Nino offers a hint of optimism, but don't get carried away

Posted by Mark Grossi on March 10, 2014 

Meteorologists quietly rolled their eyes last week as stories of a possible El Nino emerged in the media.

They know it's a hint of a crack in California's drought next year. They also know people will read too much into it. Truth is, it's too soon to know.

But a hint of change in this extreme, dry year is big news. El Nino is a giant blob of warm, shallow water in the Pacific Ocean along the equator. 

In California, El Nino sometimes means abundant rain in some parts of the state -- sometimes not. The flip side of the phenomenon, a cool-water La Nina, can sometimes mean cooler, drier times in parts of California.

The news of a possible El Nino broke last week Thursday when the federal Climate Prediction Center posted its monthly report about this often powerful phenomenon.

Right now, the Pacific is neither warm nor cool. Federal forecasters last week say their computer models show a 50% chance of El Nino developing in summer or fall -- basically, a coin flip.

It's not as sexy as the headlines and the stories we had last week, but here's how the Climate Prediction Center put it:

"While all models predict warming in the tropical Pacific, there is considerable uncertainty as to whether El Nino will develop during the summer or fall."

Even if El Nino develops, the rain may not fall. A weak El Nino -- meaning ocean temperatures were only slightly elevated -- occurred during the epic drought of 1976-1977.

Or, the rain might fall.

The year after the epic drought of 1976-1977, the weak El Nino happened again. The state was battered by Pacific storms. In the 1977-1978 season, Fresno recorded its sixth-wettest year on record with more than 18 inches. 

So, the hint last week from federal forecasters is a good sign, but don't place any bets yet.

The Fresno Bee is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service