Heard him on the news guaranteeing lots of rain. That’s crazy and hugely encouraging here in Southern California. Realized his credentials, and took note. According to Dr. William Patzert, the tell-tale signs of Pacific Ocean warming suggest that the El Nino now forming in the Pacific is too big to fail. According to NOAA, the strongest El Nino on record is expected to drench the southern half of United States this fall and winter.
The other day I had the pleasure of hearing William “Bill” Patzert speak at the Green California conference in Pasadena. Patzert is a rock star in SoCal. He’s JPL’s voice on this issue. He’s been all over the news predicting a hugely wet winter. In fact, he guarantees it! He’s got a great sense of humor, self-proclaimed “King of El Nino.” It was a pleasure to hear him and to meet him. He has a great style of sharing data and humor, and providing great perspective.
Bill Patzert got his B.S. in Physics & Mathematics from Purdue University; he got his Ph.D. in Oceanography from University of Hawaii. He is now a research scientist at JPL, NASA’s infamous Jet Propulsion Laboratory. There he specializes in the ocean’s role in climate variability; he is the NASA/JPL media spokesperson for ocean- and climate-related space activities. His passion is interpreting global TOPEX Poseidon/Jason sea level height data for the scientific community, “practical customers” and the general public.
Patzert’s talk was titled “Climate Whiplash,” featuring the “punishing drought we have been enduring in California for 15 years. The last four years have driven us to our knees.” Bill explained that we’ve had the driest four years on record… a total of 29.14 inches, or 7.5 inches a year. That’s half the average rainfall levels of the past 70 years (15″)… what we like to call “normal rainfall.”
But Patzert notes that there is no such thing as “normal” in climate science. That’s a dryer setting he quips! In fact, seven of the past ten years have experienced below average rainfall… buoyed up arithmetically by few wet years. What we experience is annual variability, overlaid with decadal variability. In the 13th Century, there was a 100-year drought.
“Our drought” is really not just about California. It runs from Texas, throughout the Southwest, and north up the California coast, through Oregon and Washington and the western seaboard of Canada, all the way to Alaska. The drought is huge, long and large, with temperatures getting hotter due to climate change. Patzert explains that droughts are slow, they take years to materialize and to develop. Long-term drought can be caused by 85% of normal rainfall for several years.
Snowpack provides 30% of Southern California’s drinking water. The year 2010 was a good snow year. This winter there was virtually no snowpack at all in the Sierras… 5% of normal. Thus California is getting hotter, the snowpack is shrinking and population is growing. Not a good recipe. Right? El Ninos can indeed double or even treble the snowpack.
Patzert’s monitor is Lake Mead. It measures the entire Colorado River watershed. Today the Lake “has a big round ring around the tub.” The ring is now 148 feet high. In the last 15 years, Lake Mead’s water levels have been dropping steadily. The Lake is now 30% full, its lowest level in history. Fully 30% of California’s water comes from the Colorado River… from which 7 states and 5 Indian nations take water, their allocations well above the levels now attainable.
In terms of water, Patzert explains that the American West is a roller coaster with drought and wet decades. “Droughts are normal,… the West is dry!” The situation is exacerbated by population. We’ve quadrupled our population in Southern California since the 1950s. “We have outgrown the water supply, or better put, we have outgrown the affluent lifestyle that uses too much water.”
NASA’s satellites have measured heat in the world’s oceans for two decades. The current temperature levels match the water levels just prior to the 1997 El Nino. In fact, we witness that the mass of warm water is even larger. This El Nino, by all accounts, is too big to fail. This warm mass of water will draw jet stream that take moisture from the Pacific and put it on the Southwest.
Prior El Nino years have produced over 30 inches of annual rainfall (31.01″ in 1997 and 31.28″ in 1982). Will another 30+ inches be punishing? Do we have a crisis on our hands? Patzert suggests that the media is playing this up. Will El Nino result in massive flooding, loss of property and life? “Not necessarily,” Patzert explained. Most El Ninos produce lots of water without catastrophic flooding.
What Patzert calls “Los Ninos” tend to be steady, “none too splendid.” Contrast that with what happened in a non-El Nino year, 1938. Then, more than ten inches in 24 hours created “punishing” results in the region, catastrophic flooding throughout Los Angeles and Orange Counties. What is now the City of Irvine was under six feet of water.
After the 1938 flooding, the Los Angeles River was no longer a river. It’s a flood control channel. “It’s magnificent,” Patzert commented, “51 miles of concrete channel backed by 2,600 miles of storm sewers.” He explained that we’ve put billions into flood control in Southern California for 70-80 years. “We’re vaccinated against large-scale, regional flooding.” According to Patzert, the problems are local. He cited the homeless as those that really suffer. Gone also will be A-grade report cards from Heal the Bay measuring water quality along our beaches. Big rains will wash all sorts of debris to the mouth of the Los Angeles River and our beaches.
So will the drought be over if we have an El Nino year? No, Patzert explains that just as this drought has been 15 years in the making, it will take some 10 years of “normal” precipitation to return to normal conditions. In the meantime, we need to continue on the conservation path: “We’ve learned to conserve water, at our schools in our homes, and yards. That’s not tapering off; that’s our new lifestyle.”