EL NIÑO EFFECTS
February 4, 1998
El Niño continued to unleash its fury across California as fourteen counties declared local states of emergency.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Strong storms socked California this week, causing heavy damage yesterday. Some meteorologists tied the first winds and rain to the weather pattern known as El Niño. Fourteen counties in California declared local states of emergency. Northern California has been hit particularly hard since Monday night. More than 11,000 people were evacuated because of 80-mile-an-hour winds and floods. At least one death has been attributed to the storm. High water was reported in every major California river, and flooding occurred on several highways, forcing authorities to close or divert traffic, leading to long backups. More than 400,000 people around the state lost power for at least part of yesterday.
WOMAN: It's a little surreal. It's amazing to see the amount of the damage.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Southern California got its share too. Waves 40-feet high crashed into beaches near Malibu and Santa Barbara. Trees were toppled near homes, and even some emergency crews had to scramble to help themselves. Residents were awed by the spectacle.
ANOTHER WOMAN: We saw the cars start floating toward the house and the storage shed, and this was a patio room with my washer and dryer. That's all my stuff across the street.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Another storm clobbered the Southeast about the same time yesterday. Tornadoes plowed through Florida, and strong rains hit as far North as Chesapeake Bay, leaving serious damage in their wake. More than 160,000 people lost power in Florida yesterday. One person was killed, and some boats were driven aground. The storms in the Southeast continued today, leading to heavy winds, rain, and snow.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The sun came out in San Francisco this afternoon, providing some relief from the bad weather, but more rain is predicted tonight or tomorrow morning. For more on all this we turn to Jan Null, a former lead forecaster with the National Weather Service who now teaches meteorology at San Francisco State University. What has made these California storms so broad, so huge, and so powerful?
JAN NULL, Meteorologist: Well, it has had a little bit of the influence of El Niño, tapping into some subtropical moisture. El Niño is a phenomena that happens on the Equator. It actually never comes to the United States, so it is--there are no El Niño storms per se, but it changes the climate pattern during the winters of El Niño years, and that is what gives us some of these very powerful type storms.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So explain how it works. It seems to be a warmer kind of rain. What happens? How does El Niño make it so powerful and bring so much water?
JAN NULL: Well, what normally happens along the Equator is that the trade winds have all the warm water pushed in the Western Pacific. During an El Niño year that warm water is in the Eastern Pacific, and so the storms coming into the West Coast of the United States and then on across the southern tier of the United States can tap into some of that warm, moist air that's above that water, and that adds to the effect and the strength of these storms.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So all the months that we've been having everything blamed on El Niño--it's this is El Niño, that is El Niño--is this the first time that you're willing to say this really might be caused by El Niño?
JAN NULL: This is probably as close as we're going to get. Again, El Niño is something that happens in the tropics, that has an effect upon the entire season, but this one had a good tap into that warm pool of water that I mentioned. And so I think we can say at least this has a direct type of relationship to El Niño, where some of the previous storms--probably every storm this season has had an indirect effect from El Niño.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now, how does it relate to the Florida storm and the storm that's moving all the way up the coast? And we should say that Governor Chiles has just declared a state of emergency in Florida as a whole because of the storm and more storms coming.
JAN NULL: Well, the--one of the signatures of El Niño is for the Pacific jet stream to be a little bit farther South than usual and to go across the southern tier of the United States, so these warm, moist storms we get in California track on across the Southwestern desert, Texas, and the Gulf states. And this one is now turning on up into the--up into the Atlantic seaboard.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Could this be happening even if it was just a normal winter?
JAN NULL: Yes. And that's where, from a scientific point of view, it's real hard to say this is an El Niño storm because we had disastrous flooding the first of 1997, during a non-El Niño year. And back--the storm that just passed Northern California most looked like to me meteorologically was the floods we had in February of 1986 in California. And that was a non-El Niño year. So, yes, we can see these type of events in El Niño years and not El Niño years.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So we can't blame everything on El Niño?
JAN NULL: No, unfortunately, we can't blame everything on it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Going back to the California storm, every major river in California was either flooding or was reaching close to flooding. Is that unusual, to have a storm that's dumping the whole length of the state?
JAN NULL: Yes. That is a little bit on the unusual side. Usually they'll impact about a half a state at a time. This was just--had a lot of energy to it. It was a real broad front. The way that it spread into the state sort of broad-sided the whole state at one time, rather than moving from North to South like a lot of these storms do.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And people talked about the--you mentioned the Gulf Stream--and people have talked about the streams that are carrying this from--the Gulf Stream goes down along Japan and then comes up and hits this warm current. Could you explain how that works? And I may have it wrong.
JAN NULL: Well, what goes on is the--this transport of the warm water that I mentioned along the Equator over to the South American coast. And then there is some movement of that water up the Central American coast. And that is what some of these storms are tapping into. The connections all under the other currents around the Pacific are not as strong as that one.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Explain El Niño is a current. I mean, in Peru, they call it El Niño, but it's a current, right? Explain what happens that makes it bring these warm, warm rains in.
JAN NULL: Well, what happens to bring in El Niño is this big sloshing of warm water across the Pacific. It's not really a current in the way like the Gulf Stream is. It's not that well defined. But we're moving this big pool of water from the Western Pacific into the Eastern Pacific. And that has to do with something called the Southern Oscillation, which is when the pressure patterns--normally we have the trade winds across the--blowing from the East to the West along the Equator. Those either break down or during strong El Niños, like this one and in 1982 and 1972, those trade winds reverse, and they push this warm water over to the Eastern basin of the Pacific Ocean.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What can we expect in California in the next couple of days, and also, what can the East Coast expect?
JAN NULL: Here on the West Coast it looks like we're going to have another storm coming in either late tonight and tomorrow. The rainfall amounts look like there would be almost this high, a little bit farther North the impact in Central and Southern California will be a little bit less, but, again, very strong winds. The problem we have now is with saturated soils. Tree roots are weakened. We'll be seeing damage from that. We'll be seeing a lot more in the way of slides. There just isn't any more water carrying capacities for a lot of the hillsides. Along the East Coast the storm that's been on the Gulf Coast the last few days is now working its way up the Atlantic seaboard and is promising to bring some real heavy rains to the--into the Washington, D.C., area and on up into New England.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Jan Null, thanks very much for being with us.
JAN NULL: You're welcome.