Earth Log

El Niño? Yes. Gully-washing winter? Well, maybe

Sun comes out highlighting storm clouds along Highway 41 near Lemoore in December 2002 — when a moderate El Niño was brewing in the Pacific.
Sun comes out highlighting storm clouds along Highway 41 near Lemoore in December 2002 — when a moderate El Niño was brewing in the Pacific. Fresno Bee file

Like a magical chant, we’re saying: “Hope rises for a strong El Niño.” Again and again.

Last year, we hoped for it. Big time. In 2013, there was no Niño, but we were hoping with gusto in 2012. Maybe El Niño would bring lots of winter storms to California.

But there has been no magic here. Winter has been stingy with storms over the last four years. The high school graduating class of 2015 here hasn’t seen a good winter since eighth grade.

So why are there so many news stories out there right now about the latest El Niño? Because climatologists are saying the shallow blob of warm water in the Pacific Ocean is a little different this year.

It appears to be building into something bigger. Meteorologists are seeing a connection to the big rains and floods in Texas, and perhaps hurricane season will be a little milder. In Canada, experts are blaming it for early wildfires. How strong is this thing right now?

“El Niño is about as strong as it can get in spring,” says climatologist Nicholas Bond of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle.

That could be the reason why the latest news stories are mentioning the two most powerful El Niño years on record — 1982-83 and 1997-98. Record rain and snow pummeled many parts of the state in those years.

But if you listen closely to researchers like Bond, you’ll understand why most meteorologists are not talking about those years.

The models show El Niño might taper off toward the end of this year, Bond says. Tapering off means lower chances of a gully-washing season, and it probably won’t be as memorable as the two most powerful years.

“Usually with El Niño, the biggest increase in precipitation comes after the first of the year,” says Bond. “But the odds do favor a normal winter for California.”

In other words, timing matters. So does temperature of the water. The warmer the water, the stronger El Niño. Last year was a weak one. This year, it’s looking moderate with a chance to be strong.

Since the early 1950s, there have been eight moderate El Niño events, according to consulting meteorologist Jan Null of the Bay Area, whose website lists them.

Two of those years had big rain — 1968-69 and 1994-95. Fresno had nearly 23 inches in 1968-69 and 19 inches in 1994-95. The seasons rank second and fourth on record for Fresno. The city’s average is about 11.5 inches.

Another consulting meteorologist, Evan Shipp of Fresno, says he sees uncertainty in the forecast right now. Predictions of ocean temperatures are “all over the place in the numerous models available,” he says.

Looking through the data, he says the Pacific has a great amount of heat because warm temperatures extend deeper below the surface. That could mean average to above average winter precipitation, he says.

Does that sound like hope? Maybe, but Shipp hedges his bet, as any good meteorologist does.

“Last winter’s El Niño fizzled after the models predicted it would strengthen,” he says.

Yes, how well we remember.