El Nino Isn't All Bad

Weather system isn't all bad

By Garvin Thomas
|  Sunday, Jan 24, 2010  |  Updated 12:29 PM PDT
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El Niño, the haiku:

Pacific warming
Jet stream flattens in winter
California wet

Seriously, it's not the end of the world, folks.

Still, every time the subject of El Niño comes up on television, we dust off the old videotapes from the winter of 1982-83 and 1997-98 (the two strongest El Niño years in the past 50) and show flooded streets, sliding hills and homes vanishing into the ocean. Those things happened, sure, but things like that also happen in non El-Niño years.

The year 2010 is an El Niño one as well, but what television should show are pictures of full reservoirs, deep snow packs and people being allowed to water their lawns in summer -- not to mention good skiing.

Jan Null, a meteorologist who runs the Golden Gate Weather Service, says when you weigh the pros and cons for California, El Niño is a net positive.

"It is certainly not the catastrophe people make it out to be," said Null.

Null says we get an El Niño winter every three to five years. Some are weak, some are strong, no two are alike. The only thing they have in common is that a certain portion of the Pacific just off the Peruvian and Ecuadorian costs warms a degree or two (or three). That tends to flatten out the jetstream, sending a series of warm, wet storms California's way. In El Niño years we tend to get more rain, spread out over more, rainy days.

That's about it. Again, not the apocalypse.

"El Niño is like the atmosphere on steroids," says Null, "but sometimes you get strong storms in non El-Niño years, and years we have flooding it is more likely a non-El Niño year. What leads to flooding in California is a high amount of rain in a very short period and the patterns that lead to that aren't always during El Niño."

OK, so maybe not a predictor of flooding, but what about those homes falling into the ocean? Well, erosion may be hastened by a series of storms like the kind we are having this week, but erosion happens every year. Those homes were destined to fall into the ocean eventually.

So, to sum it up: Great for the water supply, good for ski resorts, not to bad for flooding.  And, those homes were goners to begin with. El Niño might not be such a bad kid after all.

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