The monstrous El Niño began with a vast warming of the Pacific Ocean along the equator. Sea surface temperatures rose to between four and eight degrees above normal, pulling cloudiness and rain westward from Indonesia into the central ocean and toward California. Jakarta received less than a third of its rainfall from May to October, while powerful rains fell along the western coast of North and South America, sweeping away hundreds of homes, damaging railways and completely destroying the Peruvian city of Sana.
While California experienced “enhanced storm activity,” according to a paper in the scholarly journal Climatic Change, brutal droughts took hold in Indonesia, the Sudan and especially northern India and China. Some 23 million people died as a result of droughts during this monstrous El Niño of 1877-78, according to prominent climate researcher Wenju Cai.
Twenty-three million people? Really?
“Yes, 23 million,” Cai says over the telephone from his office at Australia’s national science agency. “That El Niño changed the world. At that time the transportation system was much poorer than it is now, and the whole world could not help the people of northern India and southern China, who were starving. But the extreme El Niño of 1997-98, which killed about 20,000 people in total, also changed the world.”
In California, the El Niño-powered rains of 1997-1998 caused an estimated $1 billion in damage, mostly to crops and roads. Nearly continuous heavy rains in February produced more than 20 inches of rainfall at UCLA, the wettest month on the campus in recorded history. Before the month was half over, Los Angeles County was declared a disaster area. Overall, more than 31 inches of rain fell that year — the most rain since the strong El Niño winter of 1982-83.
Another measure of how the 1997-98 El Niño changed the world is global temperatures. As the massive El Niño warmth from the Pacific was released into the atmosphere in 1998, global surface temperatures jumped by nearly one degree Fahrenheit, a record rise in a year’s time. This sudden spike is often cited by climate change deniers who argue the globe has not warmed in the 17 years since. Scientific agencies disagree, but this year temperatures have already jumped substantially higher. There is a 97 percent chance that global temperatures will be the warmest on record in 2015, according to National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) forecasters, at about 1.6 degrees warmer than the 20th-century average.
To the experts, only the El Niños of 1877-78, 1982-83, and 1997-98 can compare to the strength of the El Niño building in the Pacific today.
Climatologists measure what we know as El Niño by a pattern of ocean warming, which can take as long as 18 months to play out. This begins with a vast tongue of warm water extending along the equator towards Central America and California.
The amount of energy required to heat this region of ocean, larger than the continental United States, can be difficult to comprehend. Michael McPhaden, a senior scientist with NOAA, explains that “the rate at which ocean heat is redistributed along the equator is equivalent to the output of a million medium-sized power plants.”
Meanwhile, the trade winds that usually blow east to west across the surface of the Pacific have faded away, or reversed to blow towards the West Coast. Cai warns that the world is looking at another “extreme El Niño” and agrees with a report from Oxfam warning that millions of people, mostly in Northern Africa, will face a devastating drought, along with another 1.8 million people in unusually dry Papua New Guinea.
Cai adds without reservation that this will be a very wet winter in Southern California. Studies he published with a team in Nature magazine argue that global warming is pushing both the climate and ocean patterns toward extremes, which includes both El Niño (which increases the chance for rain in California) and La Niña (which increases the chances of a drought).
“The whole system is becoming more extreme,” Cai says. “We are talking about huge impacts.”
Most local and national forecasters agree that this year will be wet, although Climate Prediction Center forecasters have been cautious about predicting rain, despite the extraordinarily warm equatorial waters. The warmth in the mid-Pacific has fueled a record-breaking season of hurricanes, which at one point at the end of August had an unprecedented three storms of Category 4 strength spinning simultaneously in the unpopulated vastness of the ocean. The warm waters near our coast also meant a summer of little fog and much heat and humidity along Southern California shorelines, as well as a record amount of rain for Los Angeles in July, precipitation that was pushed northward by Hurricane Dolores.
El Niño Guaranteed
Last year Southern California also experienced warmer than usual coastal waters, and at this time in 2014 forecasters with the government’s Climate Prediction Center (CPC) identified what appeared to be a moderately strong El Niño in the fall, with the possibility of good winter rains.
Hearing the forecast, many Californians stopped conserving water. In October 2014, after official El Niño forecasts were released, water conservation efforts along the state’s southern coast fell dramatically, to just a 1 percent improvement over the year before. When the ocean signal faded away in early winter without bringing rain, the state found itself in a drought. State officials with the Department of Water Resources sharply criticized federal forecasters at a drought meeting in June. Meanwhile, California found itself with a mere 5 percent of a normal year’s Sierra snowpack and facing its worst drought in the instrumental record.
For that reason — despite the fact that this El Niño could turn out to be the strongest ever, as warm or warmer than 1997-98, CPC and National Weather Service forecasters have been notably loathe to forecast a winter of rain.
“The usual El Niño impacts cannot be guaranteed,” Climate Prediction Center Deputy Director Mike Halpert says.
But Bill Patzert, an El Niño expert with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, disagrees.
“I guarantee this El Niño,” says Patzert. “Clear out your rain gutters. Check your roof. Know your evacuation route. In the words of a former president, this is too big to fail.”
Flashback to 1997-98
For months, Patzert and his team at JPL have been tracking the ocean indices by which scientists measure what is generally known as El Niño.
Only two El Niños in the last 100 years had a signal as strong as this one —1982-83 and 1997-98 — and both brought biblical rains to the Los Angeles region.
Terry Schaeffer, a meteorologist who forecasts for growers in Ventura County, echoed Patzert’s forecast. He spoke quietly and avoided rhetorical flourishes, but his numbers are loud.
“Everything’s pointing towards a big El Niño,” Schaeffer says. “It’s different from last year. It’s looking more like 1997-98 or 1982-83.”
Although Schaeffer stresses that he offers “not a forecast, but an educated guess based on experience,” he nonetheless estimates that Southern California will receive between 150 percent and 250 percent of normal rainfall. That’s in line with the rainfall totals from 1997-98 in Los Angeles, which totaled 222 percent of normal.
Climatologists agree that the stronger the El Niño, the more likely it is to produce warm winters and heavy rain years. Los Angeles in February 1998 received as much rain as it did in the last two winters in the county combined.
“With a weak El Niño you can have light-to-moderate or below-normal rainfall,” Schaeffer says. “Even with a strong El Niño signal we have had normal rainfall some years. But the stronger they are, the more predictable they are.”
The El Niño of 1997-98 remains the strongest on record and one of the wettest years in California. Although extensive preparations reduced the toll of deaths and damage, storms that year took 17 lives in California, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
‘Godzilla’ is No Joke
In August, Patzert warned that this year could be “the Godzilla El Niño” — complete with torrential rains, flooding and potential for massive disaster.
The suggestion went off in the Internet like a bomb, generating the publication of dozens of follow-up stories that garnered hundreds of thousands of hits within days, along with jokey Internet graphics of a Godzilla half the size of the planet sending storms across America with his breath.
A few East Coast meteorologists complained about “the hype,” and meteorologist and wave forecaster Nathan Cool, who works for Surfing magazine, complained about the language.
“As soon as someone reputable calls it Godzilla, then some other commentator pops up comparing El Niño to Bruce Lee,” says Cool. “People get confused and stop taking it seriously.”
Patzert shrugs off the complaint.
“Must have been a slow news day,” he says, speaking of the cluster of coverage launched by his “Godzilla” comment. Patzert says he had often used the same metaphor to describe El Niño, and in fact had used it to describe the epochal 1997-98 El Niño for a specific reason.
In February 1998, Patzert — the rare scientist who enjoys speaking to reporters, school children and Rotary clubs — was taking the images of ocean warming generated by his satellite observation team to the community.
These colorful images of ocean warmth can at times resemble a kind of Rorschach test, and in this particular case, as the storms of El Niño hit SoCal, the image to Patzert and classroom of elementary schoolers looked like the head and jaws of a gargantuan monster, lurking in the water off Central America.
“I saw it right away,” Patzert says. “So did the kids. Sometimes it takes adults a while.”
The Godzilla El Niño has toothy jaws hundreds of miles long and a beady little green eye. A better monster image would be all but impossible to find in scientific data.
Patzert’s bluntness and media popularity often seem to bring him into conflict with government agencies. Although Patzert has tended to be more skeptical of forecasts of rain associated with El Niño than the Climate Prediction Center, he’s forecasting a wet winter this year. As the record would bear out, Patzert’s usually correct.
In 2002, 2004, and 2007 the agency forecast mild-to-moderate El Niños, suggesting they would bring additional rain to Southern California. To Patzert, none of these events were strong enough to overcome the ocean cooling associated with an even larger, though much less dramatic, ocean pattern called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), which in its cool, or “negative” phase, drops temperatures across the Pacific off the West Coast, which Patzert believes keeps potential storms at bay.
Patzert loudly derided forecasts of these wet El Niños as “El No-Shows,” and was proved largely correct. (Although 2004-05 was a torrential year in Southern California, the warming of the central Pacific that year was mild, and the meteorological consensus does not attribute the catastrophic rains of that year — including a cliff that collapsed on houses in La Conchita, near Santa Barbara, killing 10 people — to the ocean warming pattern of an El Niño.)
Last year Patzert questioned the CPC forecast of a potentially potent El Niño, thinking the warming in the ocean was too slight to influence the jet stream. Los Angeles this past winter recorded only a little over half its normal rainfall, totaling 8.5 inches in Downtown L.A.
Wet Winter, Drought Chaser
This year looks different. With the PDO now in its positive phase, adding to warmth across the entire upper Pacific Basin, and an equatorial warming signal that at times this year has been literally off the charts, Patzert believes the die has been cast. He went public with his “Godzilla” guarantee this year, just as he did before the monster event of 1997-98, when he promised a huge event, with the potential for over 200 percent of normal rainfall.
Cool stressed that he largely agreed with Patzert’s scientific analysis but objects to the metaphor.
“I just felt the Godzilla epithet was irresponsible,” he said. “It took off as a joke with headline hyperbole and Internet memes. Lives are lost in these kinds of events, and we wouldn’t give laughable epithets to other threats to life and property, such as national security, or a hurricane like Katrina.”
Cool was working as a meteorologist during the 1997-98 El Niño and recalls the destruction it caused. Waves as high as 18 feet smacked the Southern California coastline, damaging piers and eroding seaside cliffs. Along developed coastline, greater damage often results from the waves of an El Niño, which can be as high as 20 feet, than from storm water.
Cool also fears that the public is losing interest in the drought amidst the chatter about El Niño.
“First and foremost, El Niño is not an excuse to give up on our drought efforts,” he says. “Just because we could get a lot of rain doesn’t mean it will solve our drought problems.”
Sarah Sikich, vice-president of the Santa Monica-based environmental nonprofit Heal the Bay, agrees that the much more could be done to alleviate the drought: for one, capturing and reusing storm water instead of allowing some 10 billion gallons per storm to flow out into Santa Monica Bay.
At the same time, Sikich sees value in Patzert’s framing of the issue.
“From my perspective and technical training in marine biology I’ve learned that if we want to make positive environmental change we have to be able to reach the masses with a message that ordinary people can understand,” she says. “When it comes to explaining scientific concepts, I think it’s OK to have a little fun with that as long as it helps people to understand how to protect natural resources and their own safety.”
Michael McPhaden, with NOAA in Seattle, also endorses the “Godzilla” tag.
“The analogy is apt,” he says. “It’s a larger-than-life beast with enormous potential for destruction that can’t be ignored.”
A Case of Extremes
Back in Australia, Cai stresses the magnitude of this year’s El Niño. According to his team’s analysis, global warming means that “extreme El Niños” will become more common, striking about once every 10 years instead of about once every 20 years. But he points out that “extreme La Niñas” and drought in California will also become more common, beginning about every 13 years instead of about every 23 years.
Patzert cautions not to expect rains until winter. The El Niño of 1997-98 did not produce heavy rains until February. After that month’s four big storms and two small ones, the floods tapered off but the region still had significant rain as late as May.
According to National Weather Service forecaster Eric Boldt, in a normal year Southern California will see five to six storms producing an inch of rain or more, but in a strong El Niño it will see 10 to 14 big storms.
Patzert agrees with Cool that the occasional appearance of a monster El Niño will not solve the underlying problem — that we have enabled an “extreme make-over” of Southern California that makes approximately 17 million people dependent on water imported from mountains hundreds of miles away, putting the entire region into chronic water dependency.
“Right now El Niño sounds like the best possible news,” says Patzert. “It’s welcome in many ways, except when your roof leaks and your neighbor is flooded out and the hillside slides down on top of your house. The important thing is to get the news out to prepare now for this El Niño.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Ventura County Reporter.