#AGU15 NASA suggests El Niño will lead to "stronger, wetter" atmospheric rivers to ease California's drought


The above images are of Sea Surface Temperature Anomalies (SSTA) of the 1997 (left) and 2015 (right) El Niño. The SSTA are derived from the Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer (AVHRR) Optimally Interpolated SST that are provided by the Group for High Resolution Sea Surface Temperature (GHRSST) and also use NOAA’s National Center for Environmental Information (NCEI) climatology. The AVHRR instruments have been flying onboard NOAA’s operational polar orbiting satellites since 1981 beginning with NOAA-7 and continuing to present with NOAA-19. To view an animated version of this SST view, click here. For more information on this AVHRR Optimally Interpolated SST data, please visit this page.

NASA Examines Global Impacts of the 2015 El Niño

People the world over are feeling, or soon will feel, the effects of the strongest El Niño event since 1997-98, currently unfolding in the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean. New satellite observations are beginning to show scientists its impact on the distribution of rain, tropospheric ozone and wildfires around the globe.

New results presented Tuesday at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco show that atmospheric rivers, significant sources of rainfall, tend to intensify during El Niño events, and this year’s strong El Niño likely will bring more precipitation to California and some relief for the drought.

Due to this El Niño, tropospheric ozone, a pollutant and greenhouse gas, is seen decreasing over mid-latitude locations such as the United States, and the risk of fires across the tropics is showing signs of increasing.

An El Niño, which is a reoccurring natural phenomenon, happens when sea surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean warm up. The increased ocean surface temperatures influence air and moisture movement around the globe. Approximately 15 years of observations by NASA’s fleet of Earth-observing satellites show how El Niños affect multiple interconnected Earth systems.


One big question about the current El Niño is whether it will bring significant rainfall to drought-plagued California. Researchers studying storms and their relationship to strong El Niños believe it will.

Duane Waliser, chief scientist of the Earth Science and Technology Directorate at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and his colleagues analyzed the historical record of atmospheric rivers. These concentrated rain bands account for 40 percent of California’s water supply. Their results suggest the number of atmospheric rivers California receives will remain the same, at an average 10 per year, but they will be stronger, warmer and wetter.

“Overall we’ll likely get more precipitation, but maybe less in terms of snowfall,” Waliser said, adding that they may contribute to more flooding.

It’s the strength of the El Niño that determines its impact on total rainfall in California, said Martin Hoerling, a research meteorologist with the Earth Systems Research Laboratory at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colorado. His group ran a statistical analysis of the relationship between past El Niño strength and precipitation.

“What we learned is weak El Niños don’t necessarily change the odds of precipitation being much different from normal,” said Hoerling. “The rare occurrence of a strong El Niño, like what we’re currently experiencing, however, greatly increases the odds of a wet California winter.”

El Niño’s elevated sea surface temperatures shift rain patterns by affecting the temperature of the air above the ocean, which alters how winds and air masses circulate air around the planet.

The change in winds also affects the distribution of tropospheric ozone around the planet. Tropospheric ozone exists in the atmospheric layer closest to the surface and comprises ozone produced naturally and from human pollution. Ozone in the troposphere is a greenhouse gas and a health hazard. Understanding El Niño’s influence on ozone concentration is important for understanding the atmosphere’s response to natural variation and distinguishing natural changes from human causes.

Mark Olsen, an atmospheric research scientist at Morgan State University in Baltimore and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and his colleagues produced the first near-global map of ozone sensitivity caused by El Niño and La Niña events. Previous work showed that El Niño events cause a strong change in ozone in the tropics. Olsen’s new work uses satellite data combined with a computer model to show that a smaller but still significant effect occurs in the mid-latitudes.

“El Niño is just one factor in the variability,” Olsen said. “But you do see regions like the central United States where El Niño explains 20 to 25 percent of the variability.”

Ozone in this region tends to decrease where El Niño-driven changes to local wind circulation patterns causes them to draw air upward. According to Olsen, it’s a large enough influence that El Niño does need to be considered if you want to attribute causes of ozone concentration changes and long-term trends.

Jim Randerson, Earth system scientist at the University of California, Irvine, and his team analyzed wildfire burned area maps from satellite data to study how El Niño-driven effects change the distribution and severity of wildfires worldwide. During El Niños, the number and size of fires increases in tropical forests across Asia and South America.

“The change in atmospheric dynamics shifts the rainfall,” Randerson said. “So El Niño causes less rain to fall in many areas of the tropics, making forests more vulnerable to human-ignited fires.”

Shown here is the monthly average of global burned area for August 2015, produced from data from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard NASA's Aqua satellite. Light blue indicates a small percentage of burned area, while red and orange indicate high percentages of burned area. Credits: NASA
Shown here is the monthly average of global burned area for August 2015, produced from data from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard NASA’s Aqua satellite. Light blue indicates a small percentage of burned area, while red and orange indicate high percentages of burned area. Credits: NASA

Fires in tropical forests also accelerate carbon dioxide buildup in the atmosphere and reduce air quality. Indonesia, for example, has carbon-rich peatlands that ignite as soon as the rain stops, which is what happened this fall, Randerson said. Meanwhile, Southeast Asia, Central America, and the southern Amazon have very high fire risk for 2016. El Niño tends to reduce rainfall in their wet seasons, and less rain means drier vegetation and drier air, which make forests vulnerable to dry season burning.

NASA uses the vantage point of space to increase our understanding of our home planet, improve lives, and safeguard our future. NASA develops new ways to observe and study Earth’s interconnected natural systems with long-term data records. The agency freely shares this unique knowledge and works with institutions around the world to gain new insights into how our planet is changing.

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December 15, 2015 11:32 am

That’s a lot of Global Warming in one week !!

Reply to  Marcus
December 15, 2015 11:33 am

From Marathon, Ontario, Canada …Submitted by Ted States

Reply to  Marcus
December 15, 2015 11:36 am

or Submitted by Walter Roy, Cocagne, New Brunswick

Reply to  Marcus
December 15, 2015 11:38 am
Reply to  Marcus
December 15, 2015 6:21 pm

It snowed here in Colorado Springs last night —
Photo credit: John Stanton

December 15, 2015 12:06 pm

The alarmists here in Utah have been whining and crying because it was too dry. So they were hoping for snow this week. Well they got it 7 inches, a record for the day. Now they are whining and crying because it was too much.

Reply to  Ack
December 15, 2015 2:22 pm

The only explanation is witchcraft. Find the witches! We’ll hold an inquisition!
Wait! What about that guy we paid to make rain…?

Reply to  Dawtgtomis
December 17, 2015 7:32 am

Witch way did they go?

December 15, 2015 12:22 pm

It is obvious from the last NASA picture that the equatorial/southern half of Africa is virtually the only place that is burning up and this is not due to it being hot but rather huge population surges that are doing slash/burn agriculture.

Reply to  emsnews
December 16, 2015 5:47 am

I like this statement from the article with no mention of naturally started fires. Blame the humans only routine…
“The change in atmospheric dynamics shifts the rainfall,” Randerson said. “So El Niño causes less rain to fall in many areas of the tropics, making forests more vulnerable to human-ignited fires.”

Reply to  Dahlquist
December 17, 2015 7:36 am

I noticed a report the other day that was saying that the majority of fires in Australia are human caused. Then they broke that down to carelessness and deliberate. What a surprise, all of this time I thought that global warming had been the main reason for the above average fire seasons over recent years.

December 15, 2015 12:35 pm

I’m not sure what variables they use to predict the probability of wildfires. The major variables being, temperature, dryness, ignition source and available fuel; directly related to time since last fire event.

December 15, 2015 12:36 pm

It is so funny to watch the national news because they know they are supposed to be reporting “alarm”. So a bit of high water in Oregon suddenly is “alarming” for a State whose two major Universities have a Beaver and a Duck for mascots! No more discussion of the global warming proving drought in California (though it remains to be seen if the water management plan can actually capture some of the water before it is sent to the ocean to save, steelhead or salmon or smelt or….) When the N’easter finally hits the east coast after wringing of hands about unseasonably warm weather the complaint will shriek to heaven about the untimely inconvenient arrival of “disruptive snow”

Reply to  fossilsage
December 15, 2015 2:17 pm

Well it was above average rainfall for Oregon, I swear we were having to swim through the air! But, averages being averages, we’ve been below average rainfall for the year so this storm was just trying to catch us up. By Jan 1 we’ll probably be…average.

Reply to  fossilsage
December 17, 2015 7:41 am

In my area of Northern California, we are right at normal for this time of year for rainfall, which is good news. There is also abundant snow in the surrounding mountains all the way down to the 3 thousand foot level. At this very moment the forecast rain for today is right on the edge of turning into snow outside my door at 2,000 foot elevation. The times are changing.

December 15, 2015 12:45 pm

The GHRSST data looks odd. Do SST anomalies usually show a highly mottled pattern or is this an artifact of the interpolation?

Reply to  RWturner
December 15, 2015 4:32 pm

I was wondering the same thing.
How can much colder than normal water be interspersed with and adjacent to much warmer than normal water?

December 15, 2015 12:45 pm

Can we call it Climate variation, cycle, or something from now on? I am so fed up with the change word. Maybe replace climate as well. Long therm weather variation, LTWV?

Roger Welsh
Reply to  Knutsen
December 15, 2015 1:51 pm

As I have said more than a few times, we should all use, and encourage, the expression ” ever changing climate”. It’s true since the beginning of this planets weather systems and will continue until the Sun ceases to operate.
For the honest scientists, please talk in 50,000 year periods.
Maybe more people will realise how insignificant they are in the scheme of things.

Reply to  Roger Welsh
December 15, 2015 4:34 pm

Whether the weather be cold
Or whether the weather be hot
Whatever the weather, we’ll weather the weather
Whether we like it or not

December 15, 2015 12:47 pm

Leaving high technology global measurement systems to alarmists is to me the functional equivalent of giving MR scanners to hypochondriacs – always a mistake.

Reply to  cephus0
December 15, 2015 2:21 pm

Top contender for Comment Of The Day.

Reply to  cephus0
December 15, 2015 2:56 pm

When they were invented, these were termed “Nuclear Magnetic Resonance” or NMR.
Any thoughts on how and why “Nuclear” was dropped to give a less comprehensive term?

Reply to  Geoff Sherrington
December 15, 2015 4:37 pm

Nuclear scares people. They think, “radiation,omg, were all going to die!

December 15, 2015 12:53 pm

So the Congo burned away in August? You’d think that would have made news.

Reply to  RWturner
December 15, 2015 2:00 pm

Probably due to the lacking of ‘free’ 5 Star Hotel facilities for the Media.

December 15, 2015 12:58 pm

Reblogged this on Sierra Foothill Commentary and commented:
California Drought Report #50 – Stronger and Wetter El Niño

Robert Wykoff
December 15, 2015 1:22 pm

So, since it is the hottest year evah, does that mean that global warming has caused the end of the global warming induced drought?

Bill Illis
December 15, 2015 1:27 pm

California should have seen this extra rain already. It has mostly been happening in BC, Washington St and Oregon so far and with any individual ENSO event, the weather patterns can move a 1,000 kms or so.
The forecast from GFS for the rest of the month for northern California and Oregon is over 10 inches so get ready. Southern Cali doesn’t get anything in this extended forecast however.

Reply to  Bill Illis
December 15, 2015 2:05 pm

No, “extra rain” from a strong El Nino doesn’t show up until January-February. February, especially, would be the month we expect mucho rain further south.

Bill Illis
Reply to  Bill Illis
December 15, 2015 4:43 pm

The El Nino has been going on long enough to have already led to increased rainfall in California.
You are right. It will get reach its peak strength in February but it should have already been happening.

Reply to  Bill Illis
December 15, 2015 10:30 pm

Bill Illis – I think it is only its coming down as a solid. Check the snow in the Sierras. I have friends skiing there as I type.

Brandon Gates
Reply to  Bill Illis
December 16, 2015 7:04 am

Bay Area has gotten some rain this season … feels like more than last year … but I have not actually checked the numbers.

Richard G
Reply to  Bill Illis
December 17, 2015 1:55 am

For SoCal rainfall, July through Sept were above average but Oct to date has been below average.

James at 48
Reply to  Bill Illis
December 16, 2015 1:32 pm

Acting more like La Nina right now. I suspect ENSO and PDO are in a fight. PDO’s still winning.

Reply to  Bill Illis
December 17, 2015 7:53 am

Look how dry it is out over the ocean for the southern part of the state. Although, note the lower moisture band which has just appeared today to the west of Hawaii…http://www.ssd.noaa.gov/goes/west/nepac/wv-l.jpg

Joanna Ajdukiewicz
December 15, 2015 1:54 pm

“The change in atmospheric dynamics shifts the rainfall,” Randerson said. “So El Niño causes less rain to fall in many areas of the tropics, making forests more vulnerable to human-ignited fires.”
Oh dear! They forgot to invoke the additional lightening caused by climate change that should also increase fire risk. A lost opportunity.

December 15, 2015 2:00 pm

Rain where there was once drought?
Can’t be, this has never happened in recorded history. The models say that things are just getting worse, and the models of the models say that they will get worse FOREVER.
Here in Ontario, Canada, I can’t wait for the inevitable “the Great Lakes are losing water”, which was the headline a few years ago…before they started “filling up” the last few years.

December 15, 2015 2:02 pm

Engineering science demonstrates CO2, in spite of being a ghg, has no effect on climate. Identification of the two factors that do cause reported average global temperature change (sunspot number is the only independent variable) are at http://agwunveiled.blogspot.com (97% match since before 1900). Everything not explicitly included (such as aerosols, volcanos, non-condensing ghg, ice changes, uncertainty in measurements, heating from earth’s core, heat stored in ocean depths, etc.) must find room in the unexplained 3%.
The last 500 million years of substantial CO2 with no sustained temperature change is compelling evidence CO2, in spite of being a ghg, has no effect on climate. This is documented in a peer reviewed paper at Energy & Environment, Volume 26, No. 5, 2015, 841-845 and also in the AGWunveiled document.

Reply to  Dan Pangburn
December 15, 2015 3:22 pm

Dan, when CO2 can form a nucleation with aerosols that can sometimes reflect heat back to outer space and other times reflect heat back to the surface (and sometimes both), plus exist in concentration levels which span magnitudes, then it will be a dominant greenhouse gas. Yet, the sun’s role in climate change is possibly not as cut and dried as your source might suggest. I recommend studying Dr. Leif Svalgaard’s website to widen your perspective. { http://www.leif.org/research/ }

Reply to  Dawtgtomis
December 15, 2015 9:29 pm

Daw – Well there is that 3% that remains unexplained.
Nothing you said has anything to do with the compelling evidence that CO2 has no effect on climate?

John F. Hultquist
December 15, 2015 2:07 pm

California and El Niño:
A dramatic report is in the first chapter of:
El Niño: Unlocking the Secrets of the Master Weather-Maker” by Nash
This book has a good description of what a river of moisture can do to California. (Later chapters gets some of the science confused, but still useful.)
A technical report is here:

Brent Walker
December 15, 2015 2:09 pm

I am fascinated in the anomalous temperatures in South East Asia, North West Australia and down Australia’s East coast. It doesn’t look like this will be a typical dry El Nino for Australians. More like a fairly wet one.
Incidentally the MEI is still not showing this El Nino as being nearly as strong as the 1997/98 one.

Reply to  Brent Walker
December 15, 2015 2:35 pm

Excellent theatrics by the NASA circus group.

Reply to  Brent Walker
December 15, 2015 3:50 pm

To me, it looks like the MEI peaked in November. But waiting for the December graph to confirm/deny.

December 15, 2015 2:38 pm

For So. Cal., after years of stories of CAGW caused droughts, will we be treated to stories of CAGW caused mudslides?
Mudslide Watch:
Bonus points to the first commenter who spots a story on a mudslide caused by “Climate Change”.

Reply to  TonyL
December 15, 2015 3:02 pm

The above is titled ” We can’t let climate change turn droughts, flash floods and mudslides into the new normal “… It’s hilarious..

Reply to  Marcus
December 15, 2015 4:17 pm

Yikes! That did not take long.
OMG It’s DroughtFlood and MudSlides.
Or is that FloodDrought, I get so confused.

Reply to  Marcus
December 15, 2015 4:32 pm

There are lots of them, but these seemed the stupidest !

Reply to  Marcus
December 15, 2015 4:34 pm
December 15, 2015 2:39 pm

El Niño’s elevated sea surface temperatures shift rain patterns by affecting the temperature of the air above the ocean, which alters how winds and air masses circulate air around the planet.

This applies in the same way to the various ocean cycles.
What was ultimately detected as “Global Warming” was a change in the location of warm ocean pools, their impact on the routing of the air masses and storm tracts across the extratropics and by then smearing the measurement data across the globe like jelly that created a warming world out of the surface records which looks to just show about the same amount of heat moving around.

Keith Minto
December 15, 2015 2:43 pm

Getting away from NASA alarmism, I find a disconnection between equatorial SST’s and its proxy, sea level height.
http://weather.unisys.com/surface/sst.gif (non-anomaly SST 13 Dec))comment image (sea level 6 Dec.)
There seems to be more heat in region 4 than region 3 and the Eastern part of the system is spreading North along N and S American coasts, unlike ’97 where it spread South. How this will influence Californian rainfall I do not know, but as the system seems to have peaked, the effect should have been felt by now.

December 15, 2015 5:11 pm

What a field day for the heat. (stolen from Joe Bastardi)

Keith Minto
Reply to  Dawtgtomis
December 15, 2015 5:59 pm

That rang a bell http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/buffalospringfield/forwhatitsworth.html how appropriate, “There’s something happening here
But what it is ain’t exactly clear”

Reply to  Dawtgtomis
December 15, 2015 6:14 pm

A thousand fishies in the street (of Miami)

Steve Oregon
December 15, 2015 8:01 pm

It’s just not important to anyone but the alarmists who continually yabut everything that contradicts their mendacious movement.
What is the most important problem facing the US today?
Climate change is not even listed.

Reply to  Steve Oregon
December 15, 2015 8:19 pm
December 16, 2015 2:46 am

A nice song from the 60,s
Seems it never rains in Southern California
Seems I’ve often heard that kind of talk before
It never rains in California, but girl, don’t they warn ya
It pours, man, it pours
Read more: Albert Hammond – It Never Rains In Southern California Lyrics | MetroLyrics

Reply to  RogueElement451
December 17, 2015 7:56 am

I remember that one.

CC Reader
December 17, 2015 9:54 am

Oh! Are you saying that scientists are starting to tell the truth about climate?
© 2015 American Geophysical Union.

Ole Crannon
December 17, 2015 12:29 pm

Maybe some kind, educated soul can help clear up a few things from this article that just befuddles my poor, non-climate scientist brain.
“New satellite observations are beginning to show scientists its impact on the distribution of rain, tropospheric ozone and wildfires around the globe.”
“Due to this El Niño, tropospheric ozone, a pollutant and greenhouse gas…”
“Tropospheric ozone exists in the atmospheric layer closest to the surface and comprises ozone produced naturally and from human pollution. Ozone in the troposphere is a greenhouse gas and a health hazard.”
From my feeble research and readings into various scientifical type things, it seems that ozone (the molecule O3) is naturally created by the interaction of ultra violet light and lightning, and O2. I have an ozonator and drink ozonated water all the time. If I run the ozonator, my house smells like fresh air after a thunderstorm. Nice. Am I polluting my place with a health hazard?
I also learned long ago that ozone *attaches* to pollutants and thus helps neutralize or remove them from the air. Do these NASA/NOAA rocket surgeons see ozone attached to pollutants, and brilliantly thus determe that ozone itself is a “pollutant”? Like confusing correlation vs causation? My poor brain just can’t handle these super special scientific like persons claiming that naturally occuring atmospheric O3 is a “pollutant”. And health hazard. And green house gas. Why, it seems like it’s almost as all powerful as CO2.
If O3 is such a health hazard and pollutant – not to mention an evil green house gas – why are they always running around, waving their hands in the air and shouting “we’re gonna DIE” when the ozone thins and there’s an increase in the “hole in the ozone layer”? I would have thought that if ozone (tropospheric ozone, especially) was such a pollutant, not to mention “health hazard”, they’d be happy to see the hole in the ozone layer get bigger, meaning that there was LESS of this evil pollutant, green house gas and health hazard.
Now I completely understand (as best as my feeble mind can) that pure ozone or high concentrations of it can physiologically cause problems by oxidizing mucous and respiratory membranes. Just like inhaling pure concentrations of O2 will. Or gallons and gallons a day of pure distilled water. Duh! But the cognitive dissonance that is setup in my brain by calling a natually occuring element a “pollutant” and a “health hazard” is causing me a problem. See, I’m not a globull warming scientifical like person.
“It [ozone] has a varying half-life length, depending upon atmospheric conditions (temperature, humidity, and air movement). In a sealed chamber with a fan that moves the gas, ozone has a half-life of approximately a day at room temperature. Some unverified claims imply that ozone can have a half life as short as a half an hour under atmospheric conditions.” – Wikipedia
“Ozone makes up only 0.6 ppm of the atmosphere… and is present in low concentrations throughout the Earth’s atmosphere (stratosphere).” – Wikipedia
These questions may be a bit off the topic of the “We’re all gonna DIE” theme of the article addressing the El Nino. But the assertions about ozone in the article just cause so much cognitive dissonance among the one or two remaining semi-functional brain cells that I do still have that I need to have someone a lot more edumacated than me ‘splain the scientificalness of those statements by the NASA/NOAA rocket surgeons to me. In really simple terms. Any help would be appreciated.

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