NOAA 2003-R212
Contact: Carmeyia Gillis
NOAA News Releases 2003
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Rains May Yet Provide Some Drought Relief

For parched areas of southern California, lingering El Niño influences may bring some relief within the coming months, top officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said today. While the region has not seen the full distribution of precipitation associated with most El Niño episodes, its influence still remains. NOAA is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

At a press conference today at the American Meteorological Society’s Annual Meeting in Long Beach, Calif., retired Navy Vice Adm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Ph. D, undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator, said, “The dryness of this winter in southern California is a stark contrast to our vivid memories of the last El Niño, when relentless rains eroded hillsides, causing beach houses to collapse into the surf.”

The latest NOAA Drought Monitor shows moderate-to-extreme drought across interior southern California. “El Niño usually flexes its muscles during late winter and spring in this area. This moderate El Niño didn’t pack the punch of some previous versions. A moderate El Niño reduces the chance for above-normal rainfall in southern California, but it’s too early to count it out as a significant rainmaker,” Lautenbacher said.

He added: “El Niño remains a phenomenon we need to learn more about. In 70 percent of the last 11 El Niño events, the region received above-normal rainfall from February through April. So far, this season has been an anomaly.”

El Niño occurs when sea-surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean remain significantly above average for three or more months, which can change atmospheric and weather patterns around the world.

Based on the latest computer models and observations, NOAA forecasters expect El Niño, which reached its “mature stage” last month, to continue weakening through April, with near-normal sea-surface temperatures returning from May through October.

El Niño Outlook For California, Nation

Southern California and the Southwest can expect increased storminess from mid-February into March, according to NOAA National Weather Service Director retired Brig. Gen. Jack Kelly. “We think the rain is going to come. When it does, it will help provide some relief to these drought-stricken areas,” he said.

Overall for the United States, Kelly said NOAA forecasters expect El Niño to continue favoring: warmer-than-normal temperatures across the northern tier of the nation and southern and southeastern Alaska; drier-than-normal conditions in the northern Rockies, Ohio Valley and Great Lakes regions; wetter-than-normal conditions in states along the U.S. southern tier, and cooler than normal in South Carolina, Georgia, and states bordering the Gulf coast.

El Niño Prediction 20 Years Later, Questions Remain

Twenty years ago, El Niño was a little-understood climatic phenomenon that shook up global weather patterns, and brought torrential rains, floods and fierce winds that pummeled the California coastline. These days, NOAA scientists know more about El Niño, but are still hunting for answers.

Lautenbacher said the 1982-83 El Niño, the second strongest in recorded history, was the catalyst for improved climate research and prediction successes. “At NOAA and throughout the scientific community worldwide, this (`82-`83) El Niño was a wake up call for the need to learn more about climate variability and prepare sooner for its impacts.”

Twenty years later, NOAA has added a powerful, cutting-edge supercomputer, sophisticated environmental satellites and forecast models, sensitive data buoys in the Pacific Ocean and a commitment to research and scientific partnerships to its climate forecasting arsenal. Lautenbacher also credited the nation’s emergency managers, particularly in California, for “growing with the science.”

“NOAA climate forecasters traveled the country last year to brief emergency officials on what to expect from El Niño. As our understanding of El Niño grows, so does their (emergency managers) resolve to keep the public safe from serious weather hazards El Niño could bring,” Lautenbacher said.

NOAA Requests Increased Funding to Improve Climate Prediction Capability

Admiral Lautenbacher also noted that NOAA requested an increase of $6.3 million for ocean observation systems for climate events such as El Niño. “Technology is leading the way to improved monitoring and prediction capabilities of long-term climate events. This investment in new tools and technologies will be instrumental in saving lives and property and enhancing the nation’s economic security,” Lautenbacher said. The new funding will document long-term trends in sea-level change, ocean carbon sources and sinks, heat uptake and release by the ocean. A key benefit will be a better understanding of long-term climate variability to aid in decision-making.

NOAA is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and providing environmental stewardship of the nation’s coastal and marine resources.

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