El Niño is over, and nearly all the forecasts got it wrong

Didn’t see that coming.
Didn’t see that coming.
Image: AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
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This year’s El Niño, the phenomenon caused when sea surface temperatures rise in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, was predicted to be the biggest in recorded history. Writers (including, um, this one) forecast consequences including apocalyptic amounts of rain in California.

That never happened. While this year’s El Niño caused flooding in the southeast US and droughts in southeast Asia, the life-threatening levels of precipitation predicted for the US west coast never materialized. Southern California’s winter was absurdly dry. Downtown Los Angeles received less than half its average rainfall from October 1 through June.

“We’re sticking a fork in this El Niño and calling it done,” the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced this week, after Pacific sea surface temperatures returned to normal.

The National Weather Service released a 17-minute video explaining the discrepancy between predictions and reality.

The record-setting temperature rise in the Pacific was there. Scientists weren’t wrong that this was a big El Niño.

But the weather effects associated with the system—the predicted droughts, downpours, and floods—are caused by the interaction between those high temperatures and the atmosphere. That system is much more complicated, and meteorologists haven’t mastered it yet, according to Michele Rienecker, retired head of the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s global modeling and assimilation office.

“You need a very good representation of the atmospheric boundary layer and the ocean surface layer,” she told the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. “These are areas where a lot of model improvement is still needed.”