On Thursday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center declared the much-anticipated — and miserably disappointing — El Niño of 2015-16 history.
“There’s nothing left,” said Climate Prediction Center Deputy Director Mike Halpert. “Stick a fork in it, it’s done.”
It is the end, said Bill Patzert, a climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, for a dramatic weather show.
“This long-running El Niño had a fairly spectacular run on the world stage. It lasted for almost 15 months,” Patzert said. “And so the consensus now is, it’s time for the curtain call.”
The consensus at the outset was the event that has taken on mythical proportions and is driven by a pool of hot water in the equatorial Pacific would unleash torrential rains on Southern California and dent a stubborn drought. And while El Niño did deliver much rain to the Pacific Northwest and Northern California, it confounded experts by leaving the southern part of the state dry.
As a result, an unprecedented surge in flood-insurance buying turned out to be largely unnecessary in Southern California and the region’s water-producing lakes and underground aquifers continue to recede.
“People took action,” said Michael Glantz, a former senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. and operator of a website that shares information about global El Niño impacts. “People paid money taking action.”
And he said that was a result of hype about expectations.
“The problem probably started when they started calling it a ‘Godzilla’ El Niño,” Glantz said.
The label “Godzilla” was coined early on by Patzert, the colorful and quotable climate scientist at NASA. And it stuck. Pretty soon, it seemed, everyone was using the term — to the growing frustration of some in the forecasting business as storm after storm veered north.
“We actually asked NASA not to do that again,” said Alex Tardy, a warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in San Diego. “We’ve asked them nicely not to do it.” Patzert said he’d “take the heat” for ridicule generated by the term.
“It was billed as the Great Wet Hope. And it wasn’t,” he said. “And I have to assume a little responsibility for that.”
But Patzert suggested others should share the blame.
“I’m sorry that I hurt their feelings,” he said. “But I was not the only one. Everybody, including the National Weather Service, was pretty optimistic — and exuberant — about getting a down payment on this huge drought.”
In any event, the focus is shifting toward preparing for the arrival of El Niño’s dry cousin, La Niña, which could prolong the drought, and solving the scientific puzzle of why this hot-ocean episode didn’t deliver — at least in Southern California.
If the now-dead El Niño delivered anything, it was questions. And experts plan to gather in San Diego in August to explore “what went wrong,” Tardy said.
He said a number of climate scientists are expected to publish detailed studies on the topic.
“Maybe there are a lot of flavors of El Niño that we weren’t aware of,” Tardy said.
For sure, said Glantz, this past winter and spring made clear there remains much that is not known.
“It’s time to take stock of what they really know and what they don’t know,” he said. “There’s a lot of research to be done.”
For now, Tardy said, experts believe the bypass of Southern California was due to where the pool of warmer-than-normal water was. He said the pool was 1,000 miles farther west than the one that generated the big El Niño in 1997-98 and dumped 30 inches of rain on Southern California.
“So we’re blaming it in on the position of the tropic ocean temperatures,” Tardy said.
It wasn’t, he said, because El Niño was wimpy. He said the pool was “massive,” the size of North America.
And at many places across the globe, it had a Godzilla-like impact, Patzert said, citing the flooding in Texas.
“Don’t tell the people in Texas that it was El No-Show,” he said.