As wildfires continue to rage in parts of northern California, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) this week issued some promising news for the drought-stricken state: El Nino conditions in the Pacific Ocean are gaining momentum thereby increasing the chances of an extra-wet winter on the West Coast.
NOAA said there is a 95 percent chance of El Nino, generally defined as warmer water at the equator and shifting winds that bring major weather changes. The storm system is expected to appear at the end of this year and continue into spring 2016.
“What’s new this month is that we are predicting this El Nino could be among the strongest El Ninos in the historical record dating back to 1950,” said Mike Halpert, deputy director of NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.
Halpert said the surface temperature of the Pacific Ocean waters along the equator off the coast of Peru is now 3.42 degrees Fahrenheit higher than normal; this temperature is reportedly warmer that it usually is in August. Significant winds are blowing in from the west, he said, pushing warm water toward North and South America. The warm water and high winds are said to be classic signals of a strong El Nino. The last time there were similar conditions was in the winter of 1997-98, when heavy downpours filled California reservoirs. There was double the amount of rain that winter in the Bay Area, while the Sierra Nevada mountains witnessed heavy snowfall. Experts cautioned, however, that although California has been more likely to have wet winters in the past when storms are present, the NOAA forecast is not a guarantee that the drought will end.
“The correlations between precipitation and El Nino are far from perfect,” said Kevin Werner, a forecaster with NOAA. “There are examples from the recent past when El Nino events were just average. We know an El Nino is coming.
The effects of the four-year drought is being realized in a big way in San Jose. The Guadelupe River there is essentially dry, said a Guadalupe River Park Conservancy spokesperson.
Leslee Hamilton, executive director of the Guadalupe River Park Conservancy, said the dry riverbed is a “heartbreaking” scene. “We’ve been seeing a great increase in the number of birds and wildlife in the area, but the timing of this has been devastating.” Hamilton is referring in part to the once-vibrant Chinook salmon population which used to spawn on the river’s Los Gatos Creek tributary, and aquatic birds such as black-crowned night herons which once flew over its watershed. Now the riverbed consists primarily of weeds, trash and dead fish.