On a slow news day in August, NOAA’s prediction yesterday that El Niño will continue to strengthen and may well bring big precipitation to the southern half of the country (not just SoCal) made headline news across the nation.
But the focus in the LATimes — and several other news outlets — came not from the official announcement, but from JPL forecaster Bill Patzert, who uses strong language the way other scientists use phrases like “favor” and “preponderance.”
“This definitely has the potential of being the Godzilla El Niño,” said Bill Patzert, a climatologist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge.
His shop posted an image comparing this El Niño to the epic one of l997-1998. This year’s ocean phenomenon looks even stronger:
Yet to the NYTimes, Patzert was a little more specific — and cautious.
The main missing piece of the current patterns that would ensure an event like 1997, he said, is a relaxation of trade winds in the central and western Pacific, which allows the weather patterns to move eastward. “I’m a little cautious: This could happen, it could not happen,” he said.
In other words, Dr. Patzert said, “Bob Dylan says it all: The answer is blowin’ in the wind.” Without the relaxation of the trade winds, he said, “this will turn out to be a modest El Niño, with a huge sigh of disappointment here in the West.”
NOAA Mike Halpert seemed to agree, saying that we cannot assess “the character of the winter” until about mid-October. He also noted that El Niño doesn’t necessarily mean a great deal of snowfall in Northern California and in the Rockies, from which SoCal gets a great deal of its water — although it can mean that.
In response to a question from yours truly, he directed climate wonks to a post on the agency’s ENSO blog by Dennis Hartman of the U of Washington. Hartmann argues that the drought in the West and the cold winters of recent years (and decades) can be traced to anomalous warmth in the North Pacific. He stresses several times that it’s not yet possible to say if this connected to climate change, natural variability, or other factors.
Although the North Pacific Mode is known to be a product of natural variability associated in some way with ENSO, this mode of variability has become more prominent since 1979. Whether the enhanced importance of this mode is related to natural variability, global warming, or just changes in observing systems, is, I think, unknown at this point.