Underwhelming El Niño Could Still Catch Up

At the end of January, it looked like El Niño was living up to its promise of delivering wetter than normal weather.

At Joanne Pardini’s place, after all — she lives a few miles southwest of Garberville — just over 49 inches of rain had fallen since July 1 of last year, substantially more than the normal amount through Jan. 31.

But after a relatively dry February, the total from July 1 through last Friday had increased by an unimpressive 3 inches, to 52.14 inches. That was still above the normal amount at her property for this time of year — 45.11 inches. But given where she was at in January, the 52-inch total was something of a disappointment.

“I was hoping for more in February, although it was nice to see the sun,” remarked Pardini, who keeps track of precipitation amounts as a member of the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail & Snow Network, or CoCoRaHS, a weather reporting organization.

The story was similar up in Eureka. Matthew Kidwell, a National Weather Service meteorologist, said that while the county seat got double the normal amount of rain in January, as of last Friday the rainfall total for February stood at about half what the month normally sees.

“It’s not what you would typically expect for an El Niño,” remarked Kidwell.

What has meteorologists scratching their heads isn’t so much why February was dry in northwestern California.

Instead, it’s why it hasn’t been wetter in the rest of the state, particularly in Southern California, which can get clobbered by heavy rains in a classic El Niño year.

“I thought Southern California would get a little bit more rain,” remarked Reginald Kennedy, who like Kidwell is stationed at the National Weather Service’s Eureka office.

El Niño is an unusual warming of the ocean in the tropics, in particular off the coast of Peru. The periodic phenomenon generally leads to wet and stormy weather across the southern portion of the United States.

The effect in northwestern California is less pronounced. “It could go either way. You could get more moisture or less,” remarked yet another Eureka-based National Weather Service meteorologist, Buddy Martin, in an interview at the beginning of the year.

The February pause aside, the fact that Northwestern California and Southern Oregon were both wet in January compared to points south has left Kennedy, at least, wondering whether the ocean warming in the tropics was of a strength that it kicked the El Niño storm track further north than normal.

“I wonder whether the warmer sea temperatures had an influence on the jet stream being further north,” he said, adding: “People will study that later.”

For now, Kennedy said it looks like the wet conditions that prevailed in January in Southern Humboldt and elsewhere in the state’s northwestern corner have returned, for the next couple of weeks at least.

“The outlook calls for precipitation to be above normal, at least for the first half of March,” Kennedy said.

“Even in El Niño years, it’s not unusual to have a dry period for two to three weeks. So it’s too early to say [if this El Niño is a bust]. There’s still a ways to go.”