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El Niño Could Bring Winter Storms and Much Needed Rain

Strong rainfall could help drought-plagued Santa Barbara County and rest of Southern California, UCSB and NOAA experts say

Water rushes out of Goleta Slough and into the ocean at Goleta Beach in Feb. 2014 after winter storms brought much needed rain to the area. Experts say an El Niño could bring strong storms this winter if conditions are right.
Water rushes out of Goleta Slough and into the ocean at Goleta Beach in Feb. 2014 after winter storms brought much needed rain to the area. Experts say an El Niño could bring strong storms this winter if conditions are right. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk file photo)

Weather experts say that an El Niño condition forming in equatorial waters could mean significant rain for the parched Southern California region later this year.

The phenomenon itself often leads to winter storms in the region, and occurs when a warming of the equatorial Pacific Ocean waters occurs with the weakening of the trade winds, according to Leila Carvalho, a geography professor and climate expert at UC Santa Barbara.

El Niños can cause detrimental effects, such as off the coast of Peru, where fishermen frequently suffer from warming waters that can kill off fish. 

Storms that result from the system can also cause weather events like flooding and landslides.

Carvalho said the waters off the Santa Barbara Coast have already been warming, even before the El Niño phenomenon was recorded this year.

She referenced the sea lion deaths that are likely a result of food shortages due to warming waters.

Carvalho's research focuses on tropical climates and why extremes happen in those regions, and why and how precipitation occurs in regions like the Himalayas and the Andes.

Extremes can also happen in Southern California, when "we get very few days with rain but really extreme precipitation," she said. "In Santa Barbara, when it rains it pours."

Carvalho said that the storms are likely to happen later this year and "we should be prepared," she said.

"The authorities should be prepared for the rain, even a minimum of rain can cause landslides."

Carvalho said that though winter storms won't be a cure-all for the drought, it could help.

Last weekend's storm that brought short bursts of rain and rare thunder and lightning to the region was a result of Hurricane Delores, which formed off of the Gulf of Mexico and weakened off the Baja Peninsula, said Stuart Seto, a weather specialist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.

For showers to reach the valleys and coastal regions is unusual, he said.

Rainfall totals have been dismal since the beginning of the drought, with historic lows for Santa Barbara County and elsewhere in California. 

From July 1, 2011 to June 30, 2015, Santa Barbara received 37 inches of rain, and Santa Maria recorded 28 inches.

Both are at about 50 percent of normal rainfall, which would have been 71 inches for Santa Barbara and 56 inches for Santa Maria, Seto said.

In the meantime, the chance of El Niño is continuing to strengthen around the equator, and the modeling indicates that the storms California could see this winter will be "moderate to strong," Seto said.

If that trend continues, the region could see above-average rainfall this winter.

"One above-normal rain year could make a big dent in the drought," he said.

The strength of the system is still be determined, however, and experts should have a better grasp on what to expect by August.

"It looks like it has been increasing over this past week," he said.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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