El Niño: What you need to know

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Are you ready for El Niño?

Here is what we do know:

The current El Niño is already the second strongest on record for this time of year and could be one of the most potent weather changers of the past 65 years.

But here in California, better not count on El Niño rescuing them just yet.

"A big El Niño guarantees nothing," said Mike Halper, deputy director of the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center. "At this point there's no cause for rejoicing that El Niño is here to save the day."

Typically, the Arctic Oscillation, which influences the number of arctic air masses that penetrate into the South and nor'easters on the East Coast, and the Madden-Julian Oscillation, which shapes the number of heavy rain storms in the Pacific Northwest, play a big role in winter weather.

This year, El Niño is expected to be the star.

El Niño - meaning in Spanish "the little boy, or Christ child" - is created when the equatorial waters of the Pacific Ocean warm significantly.

El Niño is caused by a winds shift warming the waters in the eastern pacific ocean. This occurs every few years but this year there is more of a dramatic shift. The resulting El Niño (ehl NEEN'-yoh) changes weather worldwide, mostly affecting the United States in winter.

It's also likely to make the northern winters warmer and southeastern U.S. winters a bit cooler, but not much, Halpert said. The middle of the U.S. usually doesn't get too much of an El Niño effect, he said.

California's state climatologist Michael Anderson noted that only half the time when there have been big El Niño has there been meaningfully heavy rains.

Yes, there is no guarantee but still better to be safe than sorry and start to prepare now. Yes, now might just be that right time to fix that roof leak you have been putting off for years due to lack of rain. Believe me, if the heavy rains come, finding a roofer quickly will be no easy task.

Will a strong El Niño end the drought?

Not likely. The state would need 1½ times its normal rainfall to get out of this extended drought and that is for a period of years. Still, this El Niño is shaping up to be up there with the record-setters, because of incredible warmth in the key part of the Pacific in the last three months.

Meteorologists believe the current El Niño will likely rival ones in 1997-1998, 1982-83 and 1972-73.

Our friend NASA oceanographer Bill Patzert said satellite measurements show this El Niño to be currently more powerful than 1997-98, which often is thought of as the king. But that one started weaker and finished stronger, he said.

The problem for us? A strong El Niño creating heavy rains in Southern California is not really an end all to the drought for several reasons.

Southern California has never been well equipped to stockpile rain water. Most of our efforts are focused on creating flood control channels to push the water out to sea. Believe it or not, it's actually cheaper to import water from Northern California and other neighboring states.

There lies part of the problem with El Niño in general. Warm storms bring rain, but to really make a dent in the ongoing drought, we need snow and lots of it up in the mountains of Northern California that acts much like a bank. Heavy snow in the higher elevations often takes months to melt after the rainy season and the slow meltdown helps to guarantee additional water deliveries to Southern California.

While some local water agencies do have small reservoirs to maintain emergency water supplies, 95 percent of our water remains imported from other parts of the state. Remember, Southern California is basically a desert and with an average of only about 15 inches of rain each season out local landscape would like quite different if we had to rely solely on rain water falling in Southern California.

But again, this El Niño is so strong a NOAA blog unofficially named it the "Bruce Lee" of El Niños after the late movie action hero. Some experts predict it could rival the El Niño Storms of 1997-98. I was here for that one. I don't think I was dry for weeks. Even good raincoats did little to keep one dry in the pounding heavy rains.

This is also potentially bad news.

Anyone who covered those storms or lived through them will remember the mudslides, floods and homes sliding down hillsides. Constant, steady rain saturates the ground and simply means there is no place for the water to go but down hill. Not a good thing.

The good news?

Heavy El Niño rains this winter in Southern California would bring new plant growth and fuel moisture content to our local mountains and hillsides which in turn would lessen the fire danger next fall.

With the jury still out on exactly how this year's El Niño will effect our local weather, it at the very least is a good reminder that it's never too soon to prepare. Think about it. We never know when the next big earthquake might hit. But preparing well in advance for these types of events simply means it is better to be safe than sorry.

Yes, getting a leaky roof fixed is obvious. But why not head to your local fire station and grab some free sandbags. They could make the difference in having to replace expensive items in your home if the water starts to rise. Always have an escape plan. But remember, rising flood waters knee deep traveling down roads and intersections are enough to sweep you off your feet. Remember, turn around, don't drown.

Economic studies do favor El Niños which tend to benefit the United States. Droughts and Atlantic hurricanes are reduced. California mudslides not withstanding, the U.S. economy benefited by nearly $22 billion from that 1997-98 El Niño, according to a study.

El Niño does tend to cause problems elsewhere in the world. And while El Niño often puts a big damper on the Atlantic hurricane season, that means more storms in the Pacific, such as Hawaii. So far this year, tropical cyclone activity in the Pacific is far higher than normal.

So if El Niño becomes a reality this winter, drought conditions are expected to ease across large parts of the Southwest and the southern Plains. But drought conditions would likely persist in the Pacific Northwest and northern Rockies and emerge in Hawaii, parts of the northern Plains and in the northern Great Lakes region.

We in the FOX 11 Weather Department will likely have plenty to do if the storms finally start arriving one after the other. The challenge is not only forecasting when and how much rain we might get, but how previous and future storms might impact certain areas already drenched by heavy rains. It is not an easy job, but one we train for.

It's often said we don't have weather in California. I say, not true. There is always something to talk about. We will be on the ready not matter what happens this winter.

Bottom line as Mike Halpert, deputy director of NOAA's Climate Prediction Center said recently, "Although the Winter Outlook is good news for California, a wet winter is not guaranteed and even a wetter-than-average winter is unlikely to erase four years of drought."

For the latest on the current state of El Niño, watch the video below from Eric Boldt, Warning Coordination Meteorologist with the National Weather Service Los Angeles/Oxnard.

Tap here to read more about preparation for potential fall weather hazards.

Tap here for several additional links to resources on the National Weather Service website.

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