Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#676: El Niño... Yes and "No"

Many here on the island were banking on the current strong El Niño to bring us drought-breaking rainfall this winter and help ensure we'd have my favorite adult beverage aplenty for the rest of the year. Okay, so I do often add a little Scotch or roasted coffee bean to it. I was hoping for the heavy rains that the events in 1982-84 and 1997-98 brought us. When one is semi-retired, they occasionally need a little extra incentive to sit at the computer and work... or do spring cleaning.

To date this event has not blessed our region with the rain we hoped for. I have said for many months that El Niños do not always bring rain and that we shouldn't build our hopes up too much. Some events can actually involve less than average rainfall, and certainly the early part of our precipitation season has exhibited that. We do still have a few months in which the rains could come. Back when I was Vice President of the Conservancy, I analyzed rainfall for the island over a period of many decades. There are a number of different patterns, but one certainly involves the heaviest precipitation from February to April and that is often true of strong El Niño events. There is still hope.

So is this really as strong an El Niño as we have been told? According to one defining characteristic, the answer is yes. Ocean temperatures in the eastern equatorial Pacific have been at or above record levels. That warm water has entered our region to enhance the already toasty temperatures due to the persistence of The Blob off our coast. Now, I've enjoyed having these warm waters on my dives. Heck, in late January I even forgot to zip up my wetsuit on two successive dives. Despite that my blood didn't freeze. I've been recording temperatures at depths of 90-100 fsw in the very low 60s... during winter!

However, the warmth of the water is only one indicator of an El Niño. These events also affect atmospheric circulation. Often this involves an expansion of the low pressure zone in the Gulf of Alaska (a place I have no desire to dive). It also tends to enhance the Jet Stream that is of great importance in weather events occurring in North America. An El Niño tends to cause the Jet Stream to become more linear and follow a strong west-to-east path. The current event has done this, but the Jet Stream is tracking further north than it usually does in such events. Previous to the El Niño's impact, meteorologists pointed the finger at the Blobs along the West Coast as reasons why storms were not tracking further south.

Of course the atmospheric and, hence, weather situation is more complex than this simple explanation. However, it suffices to give us a better understanding of why we ain't getting no real rain. With the Jet Stream tracking further north, the moisture laden air that originated in the western Pacific, rose into upper layers of the atmosphere and then descended to lower layers to bring increased rain hit northern California and the Pacific Northwest instead of us.

Of course some water from the Sierra Nevada snow pack and reservoirs of the more northern regions of our State does reach southern California via the Aqueduct. However, we here on the island have no cross-Channel pipeline to take advantage of that. We are restricted largely to what rainfall becomes trapped in the Thompson Reservoir... and what our desalinization plants can produce from the abundant salt water surrounding us. We do live in a near-desert climate and if the predictions from global climate change come true, it may get warmer and drier.

So, to quote Glenn Yarbrough "Baby, the rain must fall..." but not necessarily on us. Indeed, Malvina Reynolds may have been correct when she sang "Just a little rain" in her song "What have they done to the rain?" I agree with Rod Stewart who sang "I wish it would rain." Despite the Red Chili Peppers, I doubt I'll be "Naked in the rain" unless Bob Dylan's "Rainy day women" suddenly appear. And if it does come, I won't repeat the words of Bobby Vinton "Rain, rain, go away."

Of course I get plenty of water... although it is salt. I am surrounded by it each time I descend into King Neptune's domain. But thanks to The Blob and the El Niño, it has been a double edged sword. I can wear my thinner wetsuits that make it far easier to don them over my abundant "bioprene." But then when I do, I see the ecological devastation in our kelp forests due to the impact of the invasive Sargassum horneri and warm water. I could tolerate this if we finally do get the rain greatly needed by our terrestrial plants and animals... and our residents and visitors!

© 2016 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 29, 10:00 AM weekdays and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. You can also watch these episodes in iPod format on YouTube through my channel there (drbillbushing). Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my DVD's (see this link). Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

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The warm water Blobs along the West Coast (top) and the current El Niño
surface water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean.

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2015 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia