What can drought-stricken California expect from the El Niño winter forecast?

  • 12 February 2016

A subgroup of the NOAA Drought Task Force recently released a science assessment looking at the relationship between El Niño and the California drought, a discussion that is pertinent within the context of the strong 2015/2016 El Niño event. California has experienced widespread drought from 2011-2015 caused in part by cooler than average sea surface temperatures in the central to eastern equatorial Pacific and warmer than average temperatures in the west Pacific and Indian Ocean. This winter’s El Niño event changes the pattern, with warmer than average sea surface temperatures in the eastern equatorial Pacific and cool conditions in the tropical west Pacific and North Pacific. These conditions are associated with wet conditions in California, and this El Niño ranks as one of the strongest winter El Niño events in the historical record. So, scientists asked: how will this winter’s El Niño affect the California drought?

The report points out a few key findings: the impacts of El Niño on California winter precipitation are likely to be greater in late winter than in early winter; southern California has a stronger chance of wet conditions than northern California; and, in case of a very strong El Niño, heavy precipitation is more likely across the entire state. However, the researchers noted that their assessment results are provisional and based on historical events -- the results should not be taken as a forecast. The 2015-2016 event will need to be monitored closely to see how it evolves and what types of impacts it generates along the West Coast.

View the assessment

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