SCIENCE

Why This El Niño May Be The Strongest Ever, And What That Means For You

The ongoing tropical weather event has already caused havoc around the globe.
El Niño has raised hopes of rain quenching the drought in areas such as Folsom Lake, in Folsom, California.
El Niño has raised hopes of rain quenching the drought in areas such as Folsom Lake, in Folsom, California.

The world is in the midst of an El Niño that will likely rival the strongest ever measured, according to NASA data just published.

The tropical weather event, which began earlier this year, is forecast to continue into the early months of 2016 -- bringing with it a deluge of rain to parts of the western United States while intensifying other, environmentally challenging impacts. The news is particularly good for California, now entering its fifth year of drought, but scientists warn increased rain may not  completely bust the state's water woes.

The news hinges on data that found sea surface temperatures throughout November were 2.35 degrees Celsius (4.22 degrees Fahrenheit) above average. This warmer weather is directly connected with El Niño -- and is nearly identical to trends seen during the previous two largest events, in 1982/3 and 1997/8.

This NASA visualization shows global precipitation measurements from April to September 2014. Credits: NASA Goddard's Scientific Visualization Studio.
 
 

Bill Patzert, a climatologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, said it's highly likely El Niño will kick into gear early next year, as it did during the past events. He called the strengthening weather pattern a potential "Godzilla" event earlier this year and said it's now nearly guaranteed the world will see some severe impacts, unless the "physics of the universe have changed."

"This is as strong as the two previous strongest ever," he said. "Calling it the strongest ever, close to the strongest ever, about the same -- you're just splitting words. The thing of it is, it's had a huge impact all across the planet over the past six months."

The weather event has already caused some serious changes around the world. A global coral bleaching event is expected to get worse throughout 2016, particularly in the Caribbean and Hawaii, spurred by warmer oceans. And drought linked to the phenomenon has sparked forest fires in Indonesia, blanketing the country in smoke.

The flip side of the equation is the potential for massive levels of rainfall in California. Patzert said if the ongoing El Niño holds true to form, that rain will start sometime in January or February, which will certainly help fill the depleted reservoirs.

But El Niños usually only account for about 7 percent of precipitation over the long haul, and super El Niños are not that frequent. California, half a decade in the red, has a severe "rain debt" that would take an entire year of rainfall to wipe out.

Even if the state sees a deluge of rain and snow, all that water on top of drought-hardened soil could bring damaging mudslides and flooding. As Patzert says, "it's a freaking mess when it shows up."

He warns that Californians shouldn't expect the upcoming rains to be a panacea to drought woes, but rather focus on the root of the problem: a rapidly expanding population and uptick in water-intensive farming.

Despite the predictions, the models and the data sets, the ongoing El Niño will not be identical to those in the past. It'll be strong, and it may very well bring rain to some parts of the globe and drought to others, but we're still at the beginning stages.

"The bottom line is, if you're into crowning champions, this one's definitely a contender," Patzert said.

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