The monstrous El Niño began with a vast warming of the Pacific Ocean along the equator. Sea surface temperatures rose 4 degrees to 8 degrees above normal, pulling cloudiness and rain eastward from Indonesia into the central ocean and toward California. Jakarta received less than a third of its rainfall from May to October, while powerful rains fell along the western coast of North and South America, sweeping away hundreds of homes, damaging railways and completely destroying the Peruvian city of Sana.
At the same time in many parts of the world — in Indonesia, Brazil, the Sudan and, particularly, northern India and China, where the monsoon rains failed brutal droughts took hold. California was impacted as well that winter, with “enhanced storm activity,” according to a paper in Climatic Change, but that year — 1877-78 — about 23 million people around the world died as a result of El Niño droughts, according to prominent researcher Wenju Cai.
Twenty-three million people? Really?
Yes, 23 million,” Cai said in a telephone interview from his office at Australia’s national science agency in Melbourne. “That El Niño changed the world. At that time our transportation system was much poorer than it is now, and the whole world could not help the people of northern India and southern China, who were starving. But the extreme El Niño of l997-l998, which killed about 20,000 people in total, also changed the world.”
One measure of this change can be seen in global temperatures. As the massive El Niño warmth from the Pacific was released into the atmosphere in l998, global surface temperatures rose by nearly one degree Fahrenheit, a record jump in a year’s time. This is the source of the claim made subsequently by the deniers of climate change that the globe has not warmed in recent years, since the record high of l998. In fact, last year was the warmest year on record, according to scientific agencies, and there is a 97 percent chance that 2015 will set a new high, a team of NOAA researchers concluded in August.
The El Niño-powered rains of l997-1998 caused an estimated $1 billion in damage to California, mostly to crops and roads. Nearly continuous heavy rains that February totaled about 18 inches in Ventura County, which was declared a disaster area and suffered over $50 million in losses, including an estimated one-third of the annual strawberry crop.
Climatologists measure what we know as El Niño by a pattern of ocean warming, which can take as long as a year and a half to play out. To the experts, only the El Niños of l877-78, l982-83, and l997-98 can compare to the strength of the El Niño building in the Pacific today. This begins with a vast tongue of warm water extending along the equator toward Central America and California. The amount of energy required to heat this region of ocean, which is larger than the continental United States, can be difficult to comprehend. Michael McPhaden, a senior scientist with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said, “The rate at which ocean heat is redistributed along the equator is equivalent to the power output of a million medium-sized power plants.”
Meanwhile, trade winds that usually blow from east to west across the surface of the ocean have faded away, or reversed to blow toward the West Coast. Australian researcher Cai warns that the world is looking at another “extreme El Niño,” like the strongest on record, and agrees with a report from the charitable agency Oxfam that warns that as many millions of people, mostly in northern Africa, face a devastating drought, along with another 1.8 million in Papua New Guinea.
Cai adds without reservation that this will be a very wet winter in Southern California. Studies he published with a team in Nature magazine argue that global warming is pushing the climate — and ocean patterns — toward extremes, which include both El Niño (which increases the chance for rain in California) and La Niña (which increases the chances of a drought).
“The whole system is becoming more extreme,” he said. “We are talking about huge impacts.”
Local and national forecasters agree that this year will be wet, although agency forecasters have been cautious about predicting rain, despite the extraordinarily warm equatorial waters. The warmth in the mid-Pacific has fueled a record-breaking season of hurricanes, which at one point at the end of August had an unprecedented three huge storms of Category 4 strength spinning at the same time in the unpopulated vastness of the ocean. The warm waters near our coast also meant a summer of little fog and lots of mugginess in Ventura County, and a surprising amount of summer rain.
BUT WHAT ABOUT LAST YEAR’S EL NINO FORECAST?
Yet last year Southern California also experienced warmer than usual coastal waters, and last year at this time forecasters with the government’s Climate Prediction Center (CPC) identified what appeared to be a moderately strong El Niño in the fall, with the possibility of good winter rains. Hearing the forecast, many Californians stopped conserving water.
In fact, in October, after official El Niño forecasts were released, water conservation efforts along the South Coast fell dramatically, to just a 1 percent improvement over the year before. When the ocean signal faded away in early winter without bringing rain, the state found itself in a drought. State officials with the Department of Water Resources at a drought meeting in June sharply criticized federal forecasters for not helping. Meanwhile California found itself with a mere 5 percent of a normal year’s Sierra snowpack, and facing its worst drought in the instrumental record.
For that reason, despite the fact that this El Niño could turn out to be the strongest ever, warmer even than l997-l998, CPC and National Weather Service forecasters have been notably loath to forecast a winter of rain.
“The usual El Niño impacts cannot be guaranteed,” said Mike Halpert.
Bill Patzert, an El Niño expert with the NASA-backed Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, disagreed.
“I guarantee this El Niño,” he said. “Clear out your rain gutters, check your roof, know your evacuation route. In the words of a former president, this is too big to fail.”
MEET THE EL NIÑO OF l997-l998
For months, Patzert and many forecasters have been tracking the ocean indices by which scientists measure what is generally known as El Niño. Only two El Niños in the last 100 years had a signal as strong as this one — 1982-1983 and l997-l998 — and both brought Biblical rains to Ventura County.
Terry Schaeffer, who has been forecasting weather in a subscription service for county growers since the l970s, echoes Patzert’s forecast. He speaks quietly and avoids rhetorical flourishes, but his numbers shout.
“Everything’s pointing towards a big El Niño,” he said in an interview near his downtown Ventura office. “It’s different from last year. It’s looking more like 1997-l998 or l982-l983.”
Although Schaeffer stresses that he offers “not a forecast, but an educated guess based on experience,” he nonetheless estimates that the county will receive between 150 percent and 250 percent of normal rainfall. That’s in line with the rainfall totals from l997-l998 in Southern California, which totaled 231 percent of normal.
Climatologists agree that the stronger the El Niño, the more likely it is to produce warm winters and heavy rain years. More rain fell in the month of February in l998 — nearly 19 inches in Ventura — than has fallen in the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 winters in the county put together.
“With a weak El Niño you can have light-to-moderate or below-normal rainfall,” Schaeffer said. “Even with a strong El Niño signal we have had normal rainfall some years. But the stronger they are the more predictable they are.”
l997-l998 remains the strongest El Niño on record and the wettest year on record for most of the stations in the watershed protection district, with nearly 39 inches of rain over the fall and winter in downtown Ventura that year, and substantially greater amounts inland at higher elevations. The county was declared a disaster area in February, with almost $50 million in damages. Several highways were cut by flooding, including Highway 101 at the mouth of the Ventura River, which overtopped the freeway at the height of the flooding.
And people in California died. According to a report by the National Climatic Data Center, the series of storms that year caused over half a billion dollars’ damage in the state, and took 17 lives.
IS GODZILLA A JOKE?
In August, Patzert warned that this year could be “the Godzilla El Niño,” complete with torrential rains, flooding and potential for massive disaster. The suggestion went off in the Internet like a bomb, generating the publication of dozens of follow-up stories that garnered hundreds of thousands of hits within days, along with jokey Internet graphics, such as one of a Godzilla half the size of the planet sending storms across America with his breath. A few East Coast meteorologists complained about “the hype,” and local meteorologist and wave forecaster Nathan Cool, who works for Surfing magazine, complained about the language.
“As soon as someone reputable calls it Godzilla, then some other commentator pops up comparing El Niño to Bruce Lee,” Cool said. “People get confused and stop taking it seriously.”
Patzert shrugs off the complaint.
“Must have been a slow news day,” he said, speaking of the cluster of coverage launched by his “Godzilla” comment. He said he had often used the same metaphor to describe El Niño, and in fact had used it to describe the epochal l997-l998 El Niño for a specific reason.
“It’s kind of a funny story, actually,” he said.
In February l998, Patzert — the rare scientist who enjoys speaking to reporters, school groups and community groups such as the Rotary Clubs — was taking the images of ocean warming generated by his satellite observation team to the community. Every month his office publishes an image of the Pacific through the JPL/NASA website. The colorful image of ocean warmth at times can serve as a kind of Rorschach test, and in this particular case, as the storms of El Niño hit SoCal, the image to Patzert looked like the head and jaws of a gargantuan monster, lurking in the water off Central America.
“I saw it right away,” he said. “So did the kids. Sometimes it takes adults a while.”
The Godzilla El Niño has toothy jaws hundreds of miles long and a beady little green eye: a better monster image would be all but impossible to find in scientific data.
“I actually debated with myself whether to call it Godzilla or T. rex,” he said. “I went with Godzilla.”
Patzert’s bluntness and media popularity often bring him into conflict with government bureaucracies. Although he’s forecasting a wet winter this year, this century he has tended to be more skeptical of forecasts of rain associated with El Niño than the Climate Prediction Center. In 2002, 2004 and 2007 the agency forecast mild to moderate El Niños, and suggested they would bring additional rain to Southern California. To Patzert, none of these events were strong enough to overcome the ocean cooling associated with an even larger — although less dramatic — ocean pattern called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), which in its cool, or “negative,” phase drops temperatures across the Pacific off the West Coast, which he believes keeps potential storms at bay.
Patzert loudly derided forecasts of these El Niños as “El No-Shows” and was proved largely correct. (Although 2004-2005 was a torrential year in Southern California, the warming of the central Pacific that year was mild, and the meteorological consensus does not attribute the catastrophic rains of that year — including a cliff that collapsed on houses in La Conchita, killing 10 people — to the ocean warming of an El Niño.)
Last year Patzert questioned the CPC forecast of a potentially potent El Niño, thinking the warming in the ocean was too slight to influence the jet stream. Ventura County this past winter recorded only a little over half its normal rainfall, totaling 9 inches in downtown Ventura.
A WET WINTER WITH A DROUGHT CHASER?
This year looks different. With the PDO in its positive phase, adding to warmth across the entire upper Pacific Basin, and an equatorial warming signal that at times this year has been literally off the charts, Patzert believes the die has been cast. He went public with a guarantee this month, just as he did before the monster event of l997-l998, when he promised a huge event, with the potential for over 200 percent of normal rainfall.
Cool stressed that he largely agreed with Patzert’s scientific analysis, but he objected to the metaphor.
“I just felt the Godzilla epithet was irresponsible,” he said. “It took off as a joke with headline hyperbole and Internet memes. Lives are lost in these kind of events, and we wouldn’t give laughable epithets to other threats to life and property, such as national security, or a hurricane like Katrina.”
Cool was working as a meteorologist during the l997-l998 El Niño and vividly recalls the enormous waves it generated and the destruction it caused. He points out that according to search data gathered by Google Trends, the drought generated great interest through much of this year, until it was supplanted by El Niño.
“First and foremost, El Niño is not an excuse to give up on our drought efforts,” he said. “Just because we could get a lot of rain doesn’t mean it will solve our drought problems.”
Scott Holder, hydrology manager for Ventura County’s watershed protection district, agreed with that point, but was more forgiving of the monster comparison. He stressed the importance of preparation, for drought and for floods.
“Godzilla is a buzzword, that’s true, but it conveys the information in a way that people can understand,” he said. “El Niño is out there in the ocean and all the models are showing that it’s as strong or stronger than l997-l998, and will persist through the winter and even into spring. The big question is, does that mean more rain for Ventura County? The district is taking the position that we’re preparing for a significant winter, with up to 30 to 40 inches of rain.”
Michael McPhaden, with NOAA in Seattle, also endorsed “Godzilla.”
“The analogy is apt,” he said. “It’s a larger-than-life beast with enormous potential for destruction that can’t be ignored.”
Cai in Melbourne stressed the magnitude of the El Niño this year. According to his team’s analysis, global warming means that “extreme El Niños” will become more common, striking about once every 10 years, instead of about once every 20 years. But he points out that “extreme La Niñas” and drought in California will also become more common, beginning about every 13 years, instead of about every 23 years.
Patzert reminds us not to expect rains until winter. The El Niño of l997-l998 did not produce heavy rains until February. After that month’s nearly continuous rains, totaling close to 20 inches, the floods tapered off, but the county still had significant rain as late as May.
And he reminds us that the occasional appearance of a monster El Niño will not solve the underlying problem, which is that we as a culture have enabled an “extreme makeover” of Southern California that makes approximately 17 million people — and two-thirds of Ventura County — dependent on the importation of water from mountains hundreds of miles away, putting the entire region into chronic water dependency.
“Right now El Niño sounds like the best possible news,” he said. “It’s welcome in many ways except when your roof leaks and your neighbor is flooded out and the hillside slides down on top of your house and you find yourself in a 15-car pileup on Highway 101. The important thing is to get the news out to prepare now for this El Niño.”