As Nevada ranchers, farmers and residents brace for a desperately dry summer, one big glimmer of hope is emerging in this third year of drought.
Climate scientists are becoming increasingly confident that El Niño conditions will emerge by the end of this upcoming summer, boosting the chances for a wet, snowy and potentially drought-busting winter next year. El Niño is a climate phenomenon caused by warming water in the Pacific Ocean. In the past, El Niños have produced prodigious winters on the West Coast, including soakers like 1997-98 that dropped more than 36 inches of rain in Sonoma County in February alone. That same winter more than 186 inches of snow fell in February at Alpine Meadows ski resort.
El Niños do not guarantee a big winter, but according to the Western Regional Climate Center, “El Niño usually (not always) brings wetter winters to central and especially southern California. Large El Niños (a very limited sample) appear to extend wet conditions further north.”
Some climate scientist are calling for a 75 percent chance of an El Niño year next winter, which should be welcome news for ranchers and farmers in Nevada who are already planning to stop planting crops this season or reduce the size of their livestock herds because of the scarcity of water.
As skiers, ranchers and farmers know, weather forecasting is notoriously fickle even days before a storm, and predicting winter weather nearly a year in advance is admittedly imprecise. But El Niño’s potential to drench the West Coast with powerful, jet-stream-propelled storms is well documented by climate scientists.
In a winter were storms have been few and far between, that hope of an El Niño winter that will end the drought by filling reservoirs and re-charging aquifers is a welcome piece of positive news. Climate scientists will continue to track the warming Pacific Ocean temperatures through a vast network of buoys. How much the ocean warms over the next several months could have a dramatic impact on whether the winter of 2014-15 is a drought-busting season of storms, or another year of parched conditions.