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El Niño is still a mystery

It’s unknown as to how weather phenomenon could help alleviate California’s drought

Posted: July 21, 2014 2:00 a.m.
Updated: July 21, 2014 2:00 a.m.

Like its name, El Niño is still an infant when it comes to what meteorologists actually know about the finicky weather phenomenon and how it impacts California’s rainy season.

“El Niño can happen any year. Sometimes you’ll have two or three years in a row when you have an El Niño going on,” said Logan Johnson, a National Weather Service meteorologist, who has studied the phenomenon and is tracking this year’s El Niño event in the Pacific Ocean.

“Or you may have a period of three or four years when you don’t have an El Niño happening. We don’t really know why it will repeat for several years in a row, but we do know that can happen sometimes.”

Any hopes of a strong El Niño bringing respite from the state’s three-year-old drought this winter fizzled with the release this month of data indicating a weak to moderate El Niño.

Scant data

While meteorologist know enough about El Niño to say reliably that strong events usually mean more rain for Southern California, the impacts of weak to moderate readings are unknown.

Serious research into what meteorologist call the El Niño Southern Oscillation began about 1950 — “just under 65 years of data,” Johnson said, leaving much still to be learned.

“Actually we wish there was better capability for seasonal forecasting, but the scientific capability for that is not very high,” said Jeanine Jones, interstate resources manager and state deputy drought manager at the California Department of Water Resources.

“This year the forecast is for an El Niño in the weak-to-moderate category, and those don’t provide a strong ‘signal’ for precipitation for Southern California.”

El Niño emits that “signal” only under certain circumstances and in certain locations, Jones said.

While a strong El Niño tends to soak Southern Californians, for residents in the central part of the state “it’s a mixed bag; it could go one way or the other.”

“El Niño is by no means the be-all and end-all of seasonal forecasting,” said Jones.

Rising temperatures

For a strong El Niño to be “born,” two key things need to happen. Temperatures in the southern Pacific Ocean need to rise two degrees or higher; and sea surface warming and the atmosphere must come together in what science calls a “coupling.”

“Basically, you have two components,” said Johnson. “One is the ocean temperature being warmer than normal. The other is the atmosphere beginning to react. When you have both of those going on, it’s coupled.”

Warmer air rising from the Pacific Ocean into the atmosphere triggers an increase in thunderstorms, completing the coupling.

“When you have thunderstorms going on in the Pacific Ocean, that actually puts heat into the upper level of the atmosphere,” Johnson said, “and what that does is it changes the jet stream’s position over the Pacific.

“When that happens, you really see the impacts on the West Coast’s weather.”

At the moment, meteorologists have yet to detect an oceanic-atmospheric coupling with this year’s El Niño, said Johnson.

“We don’t yet have a coupled event going on. We don’t yet see the effects on the atmosphere,” he said. “That’s another reason why it’s hard to say that this particular El Niño would result in a lot of rain for California.”

At the department responsible for managing and protecting the state’s water, Jones joked about the El Niño hype that surged immediately after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced a few months ago that an El Niño was likely beginning this fall.

Many misconceptions

“Someone took that and ran with it and it sort of exploded after that,” said Jones. “That’s why the Weather Service began making a point of cautioning people” against snap calls.

Still ahead are three difficult months, said Johnson, when “we could start seeing the worst effects of the drought, since it’s been so dry.”

“We don’t want people to think that, ‘Well, El Niño’s coming so we won’t have to worry about” conserving water, he said. “That’s certainly not the case. We need to base our decision on what’s going on right now, and it’s been extremely dry.”

Jones isn’t surprised the phenomenon tends to stir up misconceptions, along with the weather.

“Keep in mind that El Niño originally got its name because its impacts were felt strongly off the coast of Peru, where it resulted in stronger catches for the fisherman there,” said the drought expert.

“They called it ‘El Niño’ because the phenomenon showed up around Christmas time — a reference to the Christ child.”

For now it’s probably best to take Jones’ advice: “Prepare for the worst, hope for the best.”


BrianBaker: Posted: July 21, 2014 9:13 a.m.

El Nino is a mystery, yet we're supposed to believe these same "experts" when it comes to "mane-made climate change".

Yeah, right...

chico: Posted: July 21, 2014 10:21 a.m.

Since we all know now that the molecular composition of the atmosphere is what drives the climate (ie. More CO2 leads to ......)

Then why isn't it obvious we can cure the drought? - Simply water the sidewalk and street so that there will be more water vapor in the atmosphere from evaporation. More water vapor in the air leads to cloud formation, which leads to rain - tad-ah!!!

I have applied for a $10,000,000 grant from the government to study this.

ricketzz: Posted: July 21, 2014 10:25 a.m.

It will take a bigger El Nino than 97-98 (which was major) to bring any drought relief. If that happens, we go instantly from drought to flood. We still need more catchment and less grass.

Unreal: Posted: July 21, 2014 11:31 a.m.

We need a rain dance.

chefgirl358: Posted: July 21, 2014 11:43 a.m.

Brian Baker, yep, completely agree with you.

I believe that we ARE having severe climate changes, but that's been happening literally since the beginning of time. Why on earth is everyone convinced that people are causing it? Climate change has occurred since LONG before people were here.

missyJk: Posted: July 21, 2014 11:50 a.m.

@Chico sounds like a good study for a grant @Unreal maybe the city council can have that as one of the Thursday art nights a "rain dance"

Rainydays: Posted: July 21, 2014 12:44 p.m.

Yes we are having severe climate changes. Unfortunately, we an't predict how long the drought will last and it's important that we all do our part in water conservation:)

BrianBaker: Posted: July 21, 2014 2:08 p.m.

Chefgirl, you got it.

Hell, if the climate never "changed", life would have never even evolved on this planet. There'd be nothing here but a massive sea, basically a biotic soup full of one-cell organisms, surrounding a mega-island.

Yes, lefties, even though I'm a Christian I do believe in evolution. It's how God made things happen on this rock in space.

I believe in God as The Great Engineer.

(I'm sure that's WAAAAY too confusing for some people's "minds"..... LOL)

CastaicClay: Posted: July 21, 2014 2:11 p.m.

So how is the fishing in Peru? Any indicators for this year? I saw that some warm water fish are being caught locally.

stevehw: Posted: July 21, 2014 3:20 p.m.

"I believe that we ARE having severe climate changes, but that's been happening literally since the beginning of time."

Once's the *rate* of change that is of concern here.

" Why on earth is everyone convinced that people are causing it?"

That's called "science".

" Climate change has occurred since LONG before people were here. "

Once again, just because humans didn't cause something in the past doesn't mean they can't cause it now.

Unreal: Posted: July 21, 2014 3:35 p.m.

missyJk: Good idea. At least those events can be of some good!

chefgirl358: Posted: July 21, 2014 5:02 p.m.


There is "science" that give credence to both sides of the argument, it's all very skewed. It's like statistics, you can make them say anything you want depending on how you present them.

BrianBaker: Posted: July 21, 2014 5:52 p.m.

"'Why on earth is everyone convinced that people are causing it?'

"That's called 'science'. "

Yeah, the same "science" that still considers El Nino a "mystery"...

You guys are hilarious, stevie.

stevehw: Posted: July 22, 2014 1:16 a.m.

"There is "science" that give credence to both sides of the argument, it's all very skewed. It's like statistics, you can make them say anything you want depending on how you present them. "

No, actually, there isn't. There is the vast majority of climate scientists on the one hand, and a few extractionist industry-supported flacks on the other hand. There's really no "controversy" or "two sides" to it anymore. It's sort of similar to evolution vs. creationism...there's science (evolution) and not-science (creationism), but within science, there's no longer any debate on the matter.

stevehw: Posted: July 22, 2014 1:18 a.m.

'Yeah, the same "science" that still considers El Nino a "mystery"... ' No, not really. You may wish to avail yourself of this opportunity to learn the difference between meteorology and climatology.

P.S. You must not have read the article, because none of the meteorologists were quoted as calling it a "mystery"...that was some copy editor's headline. --edited.

BrianBaker: Posted: July 22, 2014 1:33 a.m.


Yeah, stevie, you keep quoting "scientists" who can predict ALL this dreadful stuff, yet El Nino is still a "mystery". They supposedly understand THE most complex system on the planet -- our climate -- yet a small thing like El Nino is still a "mystery".

Of course, being a Kool-Aid guzzler, you're probably completely oblivious as to how ridiculous that sounds to REAL people.

How about your side's accuracy record. Need I recite it? A classic example of batting exactly zero, from the Chicken Littling of the 70s about the "global cooling" catastrophe which never happened, to the 80s and 90s "global warming" catastrophe which never happened, to the current "climate change" catastrophe which also never happened.

How long are we supposed to wait for you guys to ever be RIGHT?

Outside of your own little cult, you guys are laughingstocks.

BrianBaker: Posted: July 22, 2014 1:37 a.m.

"Like its name, El Niño is still an infant when it comes to what meteorologists actually know about the finicky weather phenomenon and how it impacts California’s rainy season."

Sounds like a "mystery" to me.

ricketzz: Posted: July 22, 2014 9:44 a.m.

ENSO's underlying cause is not definitely known, but its effects are meticulously studied and once more criteria is established they will predict a severity and duration.

Humans burning coal for electricity are driving global warming. This is the current state of the science. This has been proven because nothing else can explain the warming.

chefgirl358 shows the power of propaganda. There is no science on the denier side, but she thinks there is. Someone has been paid to mislead her.

"A new study by British and Canadian researchers shows that the global temperature rise of the past 15 years has been greatly underestimated. The reason is the data gaps in the weather station network, especially in the Arctic. If you fill these data gaps using satellite measurements, the warming trend is more than doubled in the widely used HadCRUT4 data, and the much-discussed “warming pause” has virtually disappeared." -

El Nino means the Baby Jesus.

chefgirl358: Posted: July 22, 2014 2:06 p.m.

BrianBaker, remember back in the 80's, the fear that people had that the African killer bees were coming to the US and they were going to kill people and take over? Of course there have been a few tragedies, but NOTHING like what the "scientists" predicted. How about Y2K, anybody remember that? Doomsday was on the horizon, and by midday January 1, 2000, guess what...everything was fine, nothing bad had happened at all, anywhere as a result of computer meltdowns. Scientists present a lot of their theories as fact, and then later, they change their mind when the new science of the moment gives them a different outcome. Take medications, diseases, foods, etc. One day they insist certain things are horrible for you and you should never take/eat/do them, and a year or five later, they do an about face and the same thing now has health benefits, antioxidant properties, etc. It's all bs.

Rocketeer: Posted: July 22, 2014 2:06 p.m.

It's hard to top BrianBaker's eloquent Bronx Cheer, but I'll give it a try:
One of the hallmarks of the Climate Change crowd is the tendency to ad hominem attacks rather than try to debate strictly on the facts. They use epithets like "deniers" and "flacks." That has absolutely no place in any scientific debate. Such behavior should automatically raise suspicion.

Steve raised the point that those who doubt Climate Change are funded by the oil and coal industries. Is anyone getting rich off of Climate Change? What happens when we follow the money there?

The fact is when one looks at the raw data from actual thermometers there has been no warming for 16 years. Warming only shows up when researchers apply "corrections" to the data and perform "statistical analysis." In other words, they just fudge the numbers to show what they want. That's not science, that's creative accounting. Using "corrections" to the data I can prove that gravity has been steadily decreasing on Earth or any other sort of nonsense.

The Climate Change crowd have made repeated predictions, things like "no polar ice by 2013" that clearly haven't happened. The oceans have risen a whopping 7mm in 140 years. That's the achilles heel of this whole scam- we can all read a thermometer for ourselves and remember what "the climate" was like 30 years ago.

For a nice dose of truth about the "scientific consensus" take a look at:

stevehw: Posted: July 22, 2014 2:19 p.m.

"Is anyone getting rich off of Climate Change? What happens when we follow the money there?"

Do you actually *know* any climate scientists? The idea that there's a massive worldwide conspiracy to commit scientific fraud in order to get rich is absurd.

Rocketeer: Posted: July 22, 2014 5:38 p.m.

I have to *know* someone before they're considered rich? That's bad news for Carlos Slim and Bill Gates- I don't know either of them.

In the last ten years the US Gov't alone has spent over 106 BILLION dollars on "climate change." Where'd that money go? No one got rich off of it? That doesn't even count the billions going to the wind industry, or the people like Al Gore who makes billions off of "carbon credits."

Absolutely no one anywhere disputes that climatologists who believe in "man made global warming" get research grants (and thus paychecks) and those who are skeptical do not.

Scientific fraud? That's exactly what it is, and the IPCC has been caught red-handed more than once:

It's absurd to try and claim there is no malfeasance when the Global Hoaxers keep altering data, refuse to release raw data, and exchange e-mails coordinating the scam. I'm sure you wish we'd all get amnesia and forget about Climategate but that ain't gonna happen.

ricketzz: Posted: July 23, 2014 9:34 a.m.

NASA and NOAA scientists are career civil servants who get paid a salary. They are not dependent on grant money for their jobs. We pay them to be smart so we don't have to.

The East Anglia University emails are not evidence of any scandal. They are thoroughly debunked. Why do the deniers continue to bring it up if they have such a solid case for their argument? Because they are flailing and in a cold sweat panic. They are frightened little kids who never had to face death head on. They cower and flail.

"Leading scientists are unequivocally reaffirming the consensus on global warming in the wake of "Climategate." White House science adviser John Holdren said at a congressional hearing on climate change: "However this particular controversy comes out, the result will not call into question the bulk of our understanding of how the climate works or how humans are affecting it." The American Association for the Advancement of Science released a statement "reaffirm[ing] the position of its Board of Directors and the leaders of 18 respected organizations, who concluded based on multiple lines of scientific evidence that global climate change caused by human activities is now underway, and it is a growing threat to society." The American Meteorological Society and the Union of Concerned Scientists have also reiterated their positions on climate change, which they say are unaffected by the leaked e-mails."

Unreal: Posted: July 23, 2014 3:16 p.m.

Here is a flash. It is called weather. It changes all the time. The issue is not whether the weather is changing. It always changes.

Option 1: If worried about Global warming I say turn up your air conditioner and open your front door. If all of the believers would do so then that should take care of the issue.

Option 2: If all those busy expounding their theories to the rest of us would shut up the hot air would be reduced by significant amount.

Option 3: Buy up land in Nevada to be close to the new beaches.

CaptGene: Posted: July 23, 2014 3:47 p.m.

steve: "Once again, just because humans didn't cause something in the past doesn't mean they can't cause it now."

But now, of course, it's the only thing that could possibly be causing it. Hard to take you seriously sometimes.

Rocketeer: Posted: July 24, 2014 1:12 p.m.

"Why do the deniers continue to bring it up if they have such a solid case for their argument?" Seriously? You're asking why we keep bringing up evidence for a scam when the scam keeps going?

Oh, we're flailing in a cold sweat because we've never had to face death, huh? But it's the Global Hoaxers who are running around like Chicken Little screeching about how the sky is falling.

So the science advisor to the worst president ever, someone who is IN on the scam, has told you "never mind the man behind the curtain" and that somehow "debunks" things?

This has ceased to be a rational discussion, and thus has no purpose. Put your money where your mouth is and send every penny you have to Al Gore. But stop insisting everyone else be taxed and regulated because of your childlike faith in "scientists" and every bit of apocalyptic doggerel they spew. How would YOU feel if your tax dollars were going to the Mormon church? Would you object?

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