So Much For 'Super El Niño.' What To Expect For Rest Of CA's Winter

CALIFORNIA — Talk of a “Super El Niño” coupled with broadcast images of catastrophic flooding and torrential downpours amped many Californians up for a sopping wet winter that hasn’t exactly come to fruition. However, there are signs that the Golden State could yet be in for a stream of atmospheric-river fueled storms before El Niño takes his leave.

Precipitation in the Golden State so far this season is only at about 66 percent of average levels, according to one closely watched index. That’s lower than this time last year — a La Niña year, which is commonly associated with drier conditions — and much lower than the wettest season ever — 2016-17, which was also a La Niña year.

“What happened in the field of meteorology is that everyone wants to label it El Niño — and this is exactly what’s going to happen. Or it’s La Niña, so this is going to happen,” longtime broadcast meteorologist David Murray told Patch.

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The reality of the impact of these two opposing climate patterns on the weather in California — or anywhere else — is much more nuanced. El Niño years can by dry, while La Niña years can be wet. It all comes down to how shifts in ocean temperatures thousands of miles away will impact precipitation.

“The impacts related to El Niño on precipitation in California have kind of been blown up by anecdotal evidence rather than the actual statistical analysis of the data,” said Paul Ullrich, professor of regional climate modeling at UC Davis. “The major El Niño events that we’ve had recently have not really produced when it’s come to overall precipitation.”

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So far this season, precipitation in California is on par with that of the 2015-16 season — a strong El Niño year, Ullrich said. That season’s total average daily precipitation was 57.9 inches, just above the overall 53.9-inch average, based on the California Data Exchange Center’s eight-station index, which measures precipitation in the Northern Sierra.

It’s difficult to anticipate the exact amount of precipitation California could get this season. If he had to make a prediction, Ullrich said it’s likely to be an average or slightly above-average year.

But that doesn’t mean it’s time to put away your rain boots.

“There’s a lot of rain in the forecast for now,” Ullrich said. “There’s this stationary weather pattern off the coast of California that directs the storm track and tells us how many atmospheric rivers we’re going to get. That stationary weather pattern is conducive for wetter conditions for the remainder of the winter season.”

El Niño events are declared when average sea surface temperatures warm 0.5 degrees Celsius in specific areas of the Pacific Ocean. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has no official definitions beyond that, but generally a persistent 1.5-degree increase amounts to a strong El Niño, while a 2-degree increase is “very strong,” “historically strong” — or “Super El Niño” in media parlance.

Murray says that, overall, the Pacific has been warm over the last decade. “It doesn’t set up like a typical El Niño,” he said.

Most signs point to El Niño being on its way out. NOAA’s latest forecast found a 73-percent chance that neutral — non-El Nino conditions — would return between April and June. Pacific sea temperature indices were between 1 and 2 degrees warmer than average, according to a report released last week.

As for what that portends rain in California, Ullrich likens it to a game of probability.

“You’ve got 26 red and 26 black playing cards. When you have an El Niño year — like we have right now — and it’s even a particularly strong El Niño — that’s basically the same as taking three black cards out of the deck and replacing them with red cards,” he said. “If you draw a red card, it’s a wet year and if you draw a black card it’s a dry year.”

In the near term, much of Southern California is set to see between 1 and 3 inches of rain between Friday and Monday, with more in the mountains. In Northern California, the Bay Area is expected to see 0.25 to 3 inches of rain, according to the National Weather Service.

“As we flip out of a low-grade El Niño and go into the neutral stage, we should start to see some pattern changes,” Murray said. “I still think we have plenty of rain on the way.”

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