El Niño Not Likely to Break Drought

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Talk of a looming El Niño season has been going on all year, and latest predictions from national forecasters indicate a 65 percent chance of its occurrence this fall and winter.

But despite hopes that it will increase local rainfall and help with California’s drought emergency, El Niño’s impact is likely to fall short of those expectations.

The El Niño phenomenon, a major warming of the waters beginning in the Western Pacific and drifting eastward, is often associated in California with much greater fall and winter precipitation. Frequently, it’s accompanied with storm surges raising sea levels along Malibu’s shoreline for several months.

In June, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicted about an 80 percent chance of El Niño conditions for the fall and winter. It offered hope and some respite to the brutal drought ravaging Malibu and the rest of the state.

But in early August, NOAA revised its fall and winter prediction by lowering the chance of El Niño conditions to a 65 percent occurrence.

In general, when heavy fall and winter rains deluge Malibu’s canyons, mud and rockslides prevail. That can translate into long delays for motorists or even longer detours. But Caltrans, which controls Malibu’s main traffic artery, Pacific Coast Highway, said it’s prepared for any possible flooding or infrastructure damages.

“When El Niño arrives we are ready…drains are regularly monitored and all roads are kept in the best possible conditions,” said spokeswoman Judy Gish.

But the $64,000-question is, what happened to the massive surface area of Western Pacific Ocean water that in the springtime was as warm as 9 degrees above average?

One possible answer may be the unseasonably warm North Atlantic Ocean water at 70 degrees latitude off the coast of Denmark, Sweden and Norway. It’s so warm in the far north that this has created an enormous pressure difference between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

In turn, it has turbo-charged the Pacific trade winds, which have amplified California’s epic drought and accelerated sea level rise by three times in the Western Pacific Ocean.

Could these turbo-charged trade winds prevent the warm El Niño waters from spreading onto the West Coast of the United States or just slow it down? It’s a question that experts are examining closely. NOAA is not expecting that this El Niño will fizzle.

In the meantime, the LA County Fire Department has “163 reserve fire-fighters that can be called upon at a moment’s notice to assist with any inclement weather that this El Niño could deliver to the city of Malibu,” according to Inspector Rick Flores.

For the time being, Malibu is tinderbox dry, and it’s not a problem that one season of heavy rain will solve. Over 80 percent of California is now experiencing “extreme” or “exceptional” drought. In fact, it hasn’t been this parched, in some parts of the state, since the year 1580 as evidenced from tree ring data from University of California, Berkeley.

Researchers from Cornell University, University of Arizona and the U.S. Geological Survey predict 10-year or longer drought cycles in the coming decades for Southern California. Coupled with the fact that over the past nine years the Colorado River Basin and Lake Mead have been missing the equivalent of 53 million football fields, one-foot deep in fresh water, this is sobering news.

Fresh water in the Golden State, the eighth mightiest economy on the globe, rather than a barrel of oil, is indeed king.