El Niño 101: Could the California drought be over soon?

Henry Gardner '18, Writer

For the first time since 1998, California may be in store for a very strong El Niño winter.

El Niño is a weather phenomenon that occurs when the surface temperature of water in the Pacific Ocean warms, causing abnormal weather conditions around the world. El Niño affects global regions differently, and can either cause drier than normal or wetter than normal weather conditions.

In California, hopes are high that El Niño will provide much-needed relief from one of the state’s worst droughts on record. With California’s El Niño being dubbed “too big to fail” by scientists, residents are bracing for a wet winter.

“There’s no longer a possibility that El Niño wimps out at this point,” says NASA climatologist Bill Patzert, saying the storm has the potential to be “the Godzilla El Niño,” but adding, “at this point, there are no guarantees.”

Despite its benefits, scientists believe El Niño also spells trouble for many California residents. Due to weakening trade wind, rainwater, which normally falls on Central American rainforests, will instead pour down upon California and nearby states. The much-needed water that farmers in the Central Valley hope will nourish their barren farmland this winter could mean sinkholes, mudslides, and floods for residents in other parts of the state. In 1997, El Niño-related storms were responsible for 17 deaths, destroying homes and farmland, and washing out highways, all amounting to an estimated $500 million dollars worth of damage in California alone.

Kelly Huston, deputy director with the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services has voiced his concern on these possible dangers. “We worry that people won’t take it [El Nino] seriously because they’re so desperate for water. If it downpours heavily over a short period of time, it’s going to be dangerous, not just a welcome relief they perceive to be helping the drought.”

Rapid rainfall during El Niño storms have proved to be catastrophic. In 1997, over 7 inches of rain flooded Ventura County, causing evacuations, property damage, and mudslides. In February of 1998, downtown Los Angeles experienced 13.68 inches of rain–almost a year’s worth. The rainfall became too much for the soil to absorb, and much of the damage caused by El Niño out of the whole year occurred that February.

As history has proven, El Niño can be catastrophic. But, with California’s drought in full swing, the speculation of abundant rainfall offers hope to many who are willing to look beyond the dangers. With El Niño approaching quickly, only one thing’s for certain: California’s in for an unpredictable winter.



Los Angeles Times. The great El Niño of 1997-98, and what it means for the winter to come. Rong-Gong Lin 2 and Christine Mai-duc. Aug 22, 2015

Guardian. El Niño could bring drought and famine in west Africa, scientists warn. Karl Mathiesen. 21 May 2015.

Los Angeles Times. Massive El Niño is now ‘too big to fail,’ scientist says. Rong-Gong Lin 2. October 9, 2015.

Washington Post. El Niño intensifying, could rival strongest in recorded history. Jason Samenow. July 20 2015.

Los Angeles Times. A monster El Niño is likely, but there are ‘no guarantees.’ Rong-Gong Lin 2. Sep 10, 2015.

National Ocean Service. What are El Niño and La Niña?
June 11, 2015