El Niño is here, so where's SoCal's non-stop rain?

117097 full
117097 full

So far in terms of rainfall, this winter’s El Niño weather pattern has been more of a gecko than a Godzilla.

Southern California, which usually sees the bulk of the state's El Niño-related storms, only experienced a few wet days in the first half of January. Overall, precipitation in Los Angeles and the rest of California is several inches behind where it was at this time during the last big El Niño in 1998.

Niño Rainfall(Recent rainfall totals for California as of January 15th (in black) compared with rainfall from the five strongest El Niño systems on record. Image: California-Nevada Climate Applications Program / NOAA.)

Still, scientists are telling us this El Niño is one of the strongest ever recorded. So what gives? 

Well, first off, it’s still early in the game, said Anthony Barnston, Chief Forecaster for Columbia University's International Research Institute for Climate and Society.

"California typically shows its greatest responses to El Niño during January-March, rather than the earlier part of the winter," he noted.

In short, there is still plenty of time for a good soaking.

That's welcome news since much of the state is still below where it typically would be for an average water year.

Nate Mantua with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said there may be another factor worth considering.

Sure, this El Niño is strong when it comes to some key indicators like record warm surface temperatures in a swath of the Pacific associated with the weather pattern.

But Mantua noted that it is weaker in other climate signals, like the strength of the trade winds or the temperature of the ocean below the surface.

"It has a lot of the same characteristics as big El Niños of the past, but it also has some differences that may end up leading to different outcomes for what it does to weather in California and along the whole pacific coast," he explained.

For example, he says the Pacific Northwest is getting a lot of heavy rain this winter, which isn’t typical for strong El Niño years.

So, expect surprises from this climate pattern.

Rain Year so far


(This map shows the amount of rain in CA for this water year which starts on October 1st and ends on September 30th. Yellow and orange areas are below average precipitation and blues and purples are above average. Image via NOAA.)

Recent observations of the El Niño signal have noted that it seems to be weakening, as is often the case by this point in the winter.

That shouldn't stop it from sending storms our way through the spring, though, Mantua said.

By summer, it's likely the El Niño pattern will have completely disappeared, and scientists will start watching the signals again to see if it will return or if the world will see a neutral or La Niña pattern instead.

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