El Niño 2015-2016: What Can We Expect?

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Rain gathers on windows as beachgoers come and go from Santa Monica beach in this file photo. (Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Rain gathers on windows as beachgoers come and go from Santa Monica beach in this file photo. (Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Meteorologists have a great deal of trepidation about what we can expect from the effects of El Niño. Simply stated: there are no guarantees in predicting weather. The 2015 El Niño is already considered a strong El Niño. The history of strong El Niños demonstrates that the dice are loaded in favor of wetter-than-normal weather in California. Unfortunately that also means that we could roll a dud. That said, here are three weather scenarios for this coming winter in Southern California:

Scenario No. 1:
Normal Winter
Scenario No. 2:
El Niño-Induced
Storm Pattern Develops
Scenario No. 3:
Dry Pattern Develops
The winter passes without any rainfall anomalies. The L.A. Civic Center would get 12 to 14 inches of rainfall over the season. The winter brings destructive weather patterns. Forecasts for rainfall amounts vary between two or three times the normal precipitation in Los Angeles. If the last occurs, the L.A. Civic Center could
receive upwards of 38 inches of rainfall. The rainiest season in L.A. history was 44 inches in the late 1800s. The El Niño of 1982/83 produced 38 inches of rainfall.
The winter surprises us all and the dry weather pattern we’ve endured for the last four years continues over the west coast. Should this occur, the L.A. Civic Center would get less than 10 inches of precipitation for the entire year.

Remember the dice are loaded in favor of scenario No. 2. However, El Niño has also produced drought conditions in Southern California (scenario No. 3). This has typically occurred only with weak El Niño events. The El Niño events of 1992/93 and 1994/95 were moderate. The El Niño of 1982/83, 1997/98 and the current one fall into the strong or very strong category.

If Scenario No. 2 occurs, we will encounter numerous stormy periods. The jet stream will dive south and bring a succession of storms into the region. We may then go through periods of stable weather lasting for a couple of weeks or even a month. However, until the end of April, we can expect the potential for the storm track to drop into the Southland.

The biggest problems will result from heavy rainfall. These storms could produce flash floods and all the associated calamities. If we receive large amounts of precipitation in short periods, flooding could develop in unexpected areas. Mudslides and debris flows will likely start in the numerous burn areas across the region. After extended periods of rainfall, the potential for mudslides will spread to all the foothills and mountains.

Coastal flooding will also be a major problem. Strong storms can produce enormous waves. Combining elevated surf with increased sea levels, due to the warming, increases the likelihood of damaging tides and flooding. Numerous piers and coastal structures have been destroyed during previous El Niño events. The same could occur during the current El Niño.

Typical winter storms can also be expected, although the El Niño will likely give us slightly warmer weather in Southern California. Systems coming from the Gulf of Alaska will bring snow to the mountains. When the southerly jet stream develops (Pineapple Connection), mild rain storms might replace colder systems. However record snowfalls are still possible despite the more moderate weather.

Precipitation – Recent El Niño Events
Monthly Rainfall in Inches
Sept Oct Nov Dec Jan Feb Mar Apr May Total
(1877 To 2015)
0.27″ 0.48″ 1.25″ 2.41″ 3.20″ 3.38″ 2.40″ 1.01″ 0.25″ 14.77″
El Niño 1972/73 0.02″ 0.29″ 3.26″ 2.36″ 4.39″ 7.89″ 2.70″ 0.00″ 0.00″ 20.91″
El Niño 1982/83 0.84″ 0.19″ 4.41″ 1.05″ 6.49″ 4.37″ 8.37″ 5.16″ 0.36″ 31.24″
El Niño 1997/98 0.45″ 0.00″ 2.06″ 2.52″ 4.12″ 13.68″ 4.06″ 0.97″ 3.10″ 30.96″
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