October 1, 2014

El Nino 2014 – Hype or Hope?

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Considering California’s severe drought situation, the prospect of an El Nino event for the late fall of 2014 is big news in the Golden State. The reservoirs are drying up, the wildfire threat is extreme, and tensions are generally high across the state. An El Nino event would bring once in a decade surf to Southern California. But more importantly the west needs rain badly, which is exactly why the news of a future El Nino is such a big deal.

 

As you may or may not know, the simple definition of an El Nino event is the warming of Eastern Pacific equatorial waters caused by a lack of trade winds in that region. This sea surface temperature increase creates ideal conditions for our winter storms to hit the coast at lower latitudes with above normal precipitation. Each El Nino brings crazy amounts of rain that causes flooding, and high surf that causes damage along coastal structures. But you won’t hear any complaining about El Nino in Cali. Worried residents are hoping an El Nino will end the drought and fill up reservoirs.

 

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Above: Coastal erosion in California is a real concern during an El Nino event. Photos by Patrick Barnard, USGS.

 

As early as last April El Nino was in the news again and trending on media outlets across the internet. There were many comparisons to the strong El Ninos from 1982/83 and 1997/98. Unfortunately, prospects have been fading for an El Niño event in 2014. A series of developments last May had the meteorological world convinced that an El Nino was eminent until a cool current in June put those thoughts to rest. But now there’s a glimmer of hope for a very modest comeback.

 

The latest data from the NASA Jason 2 Satellite shows a pair of Kelvin Waves (waves of higher sea level) moving eastward across the Pacific towards Ecuador – the third pair of Kelvin Waves this year. These waves of higher sea level have higher than normal sea surface temps (warmer water expands, making sea levels rise) and should reach Ecuador in early October.

 

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Above: Kelvin Waves (red and orange) move eastward across the Pacific towards Ecuador. Photo: NASA

 

The earlier Kelvin Waves that appeared last May and were triggered by a series of larger atmospheric “West Wind Bursts” that raised hopes of an El Nino Event. Throughout the summer, the warming caused by these waves dissipated and dampened expectations of an El Nino. Fortunately, these new Kelvin Waves have appeared and have resuscitated hopes of a late season El Nino.

 

Climatologist Bill Patzert of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, says it’s too early to know for sure, but he would not be surprised if the latest Kelvin waves are the “last hurrah” for this much-hoped-for El Niño. “Since February 2014, the prospect of an El Niño has waxed and waned. This late in the season, the best we can expect is a weak to moderate event. What comes next is not yet clear. But for the drought-plagued American West, the possibility of a badly needed drenching is fading,” said Patzert.

 

There’s plenty of credibility to NASA and NOAA’s weather data and research, and I’m not saying that they are wrong, but sometimes observations from people that live their life on the sea are all the clues you need. The fact that fisherman are catching rare pelagic fish like Wahoo, Durado, and Yellowfin Tuna off the Southern California coast is a big indicator of things to come. Fisherman report the same rare catches before the last two large El Ninos in 82/83 and 97/98.

 

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Above: Rare catches in summer 2014! Warm water fish like Durado and Wahoo are usually caught in Southern California only before an El Nino event.

 

In addition, surfers have noticed an increase in hurricane activity during the summer and fall before an El Nino event. The hurricane season in 2014 has been a major one with an above average amount of storms forming off the coast of mainland Mexico. In August, Hurricane Marie produced the best and largest waves Southern California had seen in decades, while Hurricane Odile annihilated Cabo San Lucas just two weeks ago. When was the last epic surf to hit SoCal from a hurricane previous to 2014? Hurricane Guillermo in August 1997, right before the last large El Nino event. Coincidence? That El Nino saw huge surf and warm water temps with surfers wearing boardshorts at Rincon after Christmas!

 

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Above: Newport Point, CA during the epic August 2014 Hurricane Marie swell. Photo: Zak Noyle.

 

Only time will tell if we will see another El Nino in 2014. So far estimates from climatologists range from 50% to 67% confidence that it will happen. For California residents, the waiting is the hardest part as fall is typically the worst wildfire season and the state is dry as a bone. Let’s cross our fingers!

 

For more info, watch this NASA video – “Is 2014 the New 1997?”

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