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A comparison of the November 1997 and July 2015 El Niños in the Pacific Ocean west of Peru. Areas of warm water appear in red. (Image: NOAA Environmental Visualization Laboratory)

A comparison of the November 1997 and July 2015 El Niños in the Pacific Ocean west of Peru. Areas of warm water appear in red. (Image: NOAA Environmental Visualization Laboratory)

On Thursday, the National Weather Service (NWS) announced that their computer models are predicting a strong El Niño to hit California in late fall or early winter.

“This definitely has the potential of being the Godzilla El Niño,” said Bill Patzert, a climatologist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge.

NOAA officially announced the start of El Niño in March, and scientists say it may make 2015 even hotter than the record-busting 2014. Now they’re saying it could give drought-scorched California the rain it’s desperately been missing.

According to NWS, conditions in the Pacific Ocean are very similar to how they were in 1997, which led to the most extreme El Niño on record. The conditions for such a weather pattern include a lot of warm water in the Pacific and a weakening of the trade winds. Right now, the mass of warm water in the Pacific is even bigger and deeper than it was in 1997 (as of August 5, NWS reports temperatures are 3.4 degrees Fahrenheit above average, compared to the 3.2 degrees Fahrenheit above average on August 6, 1997) and the trade winds are indeed dying down. This allows warm water to flow east towards the Americas.

The trade winds need to collapse in order to really set off this year’s El Niño, and it’s impossible to predict whether that will come to pass. If it does, however, Patzert says this year’s storms could be even stronger than ’97.

“This could be among the strongest El Niños in the historical record dating back to 1950,” Mike Halpert, deputy director of the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center, told The LA Times.

Areas in red and white represent the warmest sea-surface temperatures above the average. (Source: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory climatologist Bill Patzert)

What could a “strong” El Niño mean for Southern California? In 1998, downtown Los Angeles received almost an entire year’s worth of rain in a single month. And while California is desperately in need of hydration, the consequences could be dire.

“If this lives up to its potential,” said Patzert, “this thing can bring a lot of floods, mudslides and mayhem.”

Back in ’98, El Niño was responsible for 17 deaths in California and over half a billion dollars’ worth of damage.

The National Weather Center has forecast a higher than 90 percent chance El Niño will continue through the winter, and an 85 percent chance it will last into spring. At the moment, conditions are not powerful enough for the rain to hit Northern California.

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