El Nino May Return This Year
From Issue: Volume XX - Number 21
By Kirt Ramirez
As Seal Beach approaches its 30th anniversary since part of its pier collapsed in the major El Niño event of 1982/83, the United States is on watch this year for a potential weak El Niño.
El Niños are a normal and natural occurrence according to books and climate records. The events happen about every three to seven years when warmer water develops in a tropical part of the Pacific near the equator.
In Peru – just below the equator – Peruvians have known about the event for at least 400 years, according to the chapter on El Niño in the book California’s Beaches and Coast. When the warm water hits, the anchovy population drops drastically in that region and this affects the fishing industry and creatures that eat the fish.
“In Peru, because this warm-water phenomenon often arrived around Christmas, it was given the name El Niño, Spanish for ‘the child,’ in reference to the timing of the birth of Jesus,” according to the book.
Atmospheric and oceanic circulation and water temperatures in the equatorial Pacific gets thrown off in an El Niño event, according to the book. An ocean diagram shows all the arrows going in opposite direction from what is normal.
Peru is far away from California; Lima to Los Angeles is a distant 4,180 miles (6,727 km). The ocean next to Peru is the South Pacific; but the ocean next to us is the Northern Pacific. Despite the differences, what happens down there can affect us up here.
There are three categories of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation: El Niño, La Niña and neutral.
“Right now we are in a neutral climate state,” said Michelle L’Heureux, meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center.
Currently we are on the borderline of neutral and El Niño, she said. “It’s certainly close to the edge. We’re expecting borderline conditions to continue. There is a 55 percent chance of a potential weak El Niño category developing.”
NOAA has issued an El Niño watch for the United States, L’Heureux said.
The water is warmer in the tropical Pacific thus the conditions for El Niño are favored but it’s not a sure thing yet, she said Oct. 15.
“We don’t really know why it develops, but that every once in a while the tropical circulation and ocean temperatures will change. Areas across the United States are affected,” L’Heureux said.
If El Niño happens, it’s expected to be a weak one.
“One thing you should realize is that weak El Niño events have less reliable impacts, so for Southern California NOAA Climate Prediction Center is not projecting temperature or precipitation impacts this coming fall/winter. There are other areas of the country that may feel the influence more than California,” she said.
Meanwhile, the El Niño of 1982/83 caused the worst coastal storm damage to California in 50 years, according to California’s Beaches and Coast. Storm after storm dropped rain in the first three months of 1983 and strong waves pounded the coast causing widespread devastation and flooding. Several piers came down either partially or fully. But Long Beach’s Belmont Veterans Pier withstood the winter havoc.
Since 1982/83, nine other El Niños have occurred but most were weaker, according to NOAA records.
Besides the 1982/83 major one, a strong El Niño happened in 1997/98 – which according to California’s Beaches and Coast was stronger than 1982/83 – but caused less damage because infrastructures were repaired and made better.
In the El Niño winter of 1997/98, two young men drove south on Beach Boulevard in the rain when they spotted a clearly-formed funnel cloud in the sky. A 21-year-old pre-reporter told the driving friend to “follow it!”
The two continued on Beach and reached a point where the funnel cloud was somewhere overhead, though no longer visible. All of a sudden a cloudburst of rain and hail hammered the car and other vehicles on that section of the busy street. Cars stopped in place to deal with the scary downpour of water and ice stones. After a minute or so, the deluge of winter elements subsided and the cars went on their way.
Later that day – Jan. 9, 1998 – television news reports talked about a “tornado” that touched down in Long Beach but was spotted over other coastal areas too.
Broadcast and print news reports showed how part of the roof from the old Lucky store on Palo Verde Avenue and Spring Street was ripped off as well as that of Cubberley Elementary school. The cyclonic winds damaged trees, power lines and properties in spotty-fashion and took the “V” off the Vitamin City store sign. No one was seriously injured.
Meanwhile, Long Beach’s Swift Water / Flood Rescue Team and the Public Safety Dive Team train year-round to prepare for deployment at any moment should the need arise.
Long Beach Fire Department Marine Safety Chief Randy Foster warns everyone to stay away from the flood controls during the rainy season. “Some people may be caught off-guard. If we have significant rain inland, it will affect us here. One minute it’s harmless-looking, the next minute you have a raging river.”
Warning for kids: “Never ever play in these flood control channels. They are dangerous at all times. They are truly killing machines.”