Wet and Wild El Nino, 2016 Version
El Nino 2016 actually appeared. We have had rain! The hills are turning emerald green almost before your eyes, and their echo of the hills of Ireland is only missing the stone fences.
This is the favorite time of year of most people who live in San Luis Obispo County. It’s the time we are most likely to get rainfall, interspersed with calm, lovely days that have the cleanest air you can imagine, and our gardens give a sigh of relief.
But El Nino years are a little more intense than “normal” years. The waves can come in from the southwest, building over a long reach, creating an irresistible temptation for surfers. For us sand-dwellers at the beach, the big surf is just a treat with the regular over-sized foam and crash (imagine the surf breaking beneath your bedroom at the Beach House).
There is usually more rain, of course (which we need badly, just like the rest of California), but it tends to be intermittent, depending on how the storm track responds. For the times when it’s a soak, we suggest a fireplace and a friend (SeaVenture can supply the fireplace).
The experts say the El Nino of 2016 won’t end our drought of 4 years, but it’s got to help! The snow is piling up in the Sierras like crazy, which should help our reservoirs get a back toward the full mark. Even if the drought returns, this wet year (so far!) is a blessing we can experience right now.
Now, for those of you with a bit of a geeky streak who want to know more about what El Nino actually is, read on. I found a great one-page summary about the impact of El Nino on California by Jan Null of Golden State Weather Services. It describes how this huge weather generator occurs in (mostly) plain English and addresses some of the common misconceptions about it.
Here’s the one thing we know for sure: every 2 to 7 years an El Nino event happens when typically warmer water in the Eastern Pacific shifts to the west off the coast of Peru. This is the definition of the event, so it’s always true during El Nino. It happens because the trade winds in that latitude which normally flow from east to west reverse course to flow from west to east, pushing warmer water toward the east near South America.
Just about everything else is variable: for reasons I cannot begin to explain the El Nino condition is often associated with a shift in the “storm track” to bring more moisture to central and southern California. Here in SLO County, we sometimes hear about how the “storm door” is open because the jet stream has shifted south more over us. (The jet stream is linked to the storm track – maybe these are two ways of describing the same thing.)
How much more rain will we get, and when? This is the big question, and as always, we only know a few days or a little more in advance. The El Nino does not ALWAYS generate more rain locally, and in fact it does not ALWAYS generate more rainfall in a season.
As we move into the winter, forecasters have become almost completely certain that this is going to be a strong El Nino year, which is frequently (but not ALWAYS!) associated with more rainfall. In our year to date, we have above 6 inches of rain in most of the county, and that puts ahead of average.
Here’s one last tidbit about El Nino. Although we tend to think of it as a good thing, the impact on other parts of the world can be quite devastating. Records going back over a century show that strong El Ninos have been associated with drought in places like India where the normal monsoons fail to occur.
When something big messes up “normal” weather, like El Nino does, you can’t always expect positive outcomes.
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