California's parched soil (and people) could be in for a reversal of fortune this summer, as climate scientists are now increasingly convinced that an El Niño —a warm current of Pacific surface water that leads to rain in the western United States—is likely to form. "We are now even more bullish that an El Niño is impending," Michelle L'Heureux, a meteorologist with the NOAA's Climate Prediction Center told the Mercury. In fact, federal scientists are now predicting a 78 percent chance of such a climate pattern emerging, up from 66 percent last month, and 36 percent last November.
An El Niño in 1997 led to rainfall so severe as to cause flooding in counties across the state. In that case, the Pacific Ocean water had warmed by five degrees over normal. According to recent estimates, an El Niño this year could raise water temperature by one to three degrees. That led Bill Patzert, a research scientist and oceanographer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, to urge caution: "I don't see the Godzilla,'' he said. "But I'll give it another couple of months. This still could be El Fizzle."
A repeat of 1997 would not be an unalloyed cause for celebration. The rain in the Americas will be drawn from what would have been water in East Asia and Australia—leading to droughts in those regions. Take, for example, this headline in the Sydney Morning Herald: "Dreaded El Niño Looms in Pacific. Compare that to the San Francisco Chronicle's "Thirsty California Pins Hopes on El Niño." Much worse, floods and other disasters caused by the 1997 rainfall killed an estimated 20,000 people around the world (other sources have that number at 21,000). Property damage could stretch into the billions of dollars.
Over on California Weather Watch, Stanford grad student Daniel Swain recently wrote that wave and sea temperature patterns in the Pacific currently were hewing closely to those observed just prior to the 1997 El Niño, leading him to believe that "it’s still rather likely that the Pacific is headed for a major El Niño." He added that predictions would become much sharper by the end of May.