El Ni-o condition may be worse than thought

Batten down the hatches and make room for that vehicle in the garage: Last weekend's storm may be only the beginning.

Climatologists have beefed up their prediction of El Ni-o, a tropical weather phenomenon that originates in the South Pacific Ocean with a warm water mass.

The weather condition -- which was upgraded by forecasters from "moderate" to "upper moderate" at a Sacramento conference Friday -- has led to widespread flooding, mudslides and even deaths during its strongest winter seasons in 1982-83 and 1997-98. The latter -- the seventh wettest winter since 1895 -- brought property losses in California alone to a staggering $1.1 billion.

This year's El Ni-o shouldn't be as severe, but residents and businesses may want to refrain from downplaying its impacts, warned Kelly Redmond from the Western Regional Climate Center in Reno.

"It's become a little more intense than previously predicted. It has more oomph and influence," said Redmond, who was on hand at last week's conference. "The fact it's not as intense doesn't mean the consequences are less intense."

El Ni-o is characteristic of rainy winters in the Southwest, but it may be traditionally tied to heavy snow in the Sierra Nevada. Lake Tahoe falls on the cusp of the anomalies.

Its name comes from a reference to the Christ child because its primary effect hits around Christmas.

"Most will say (this past weekend's storms are) consistent with the types of storms El Ni-o can bring. You can never be totally sure, but we do see patterns," Redmond said.

No exact correlation can be determined since El Ni-o provides a conduit to storms, not a cause.

Redmund cites this past weekend's strong jet stream, which circulated 40,000 feet above the Earth at 265 mph. The average speed measures 200 mph.

Climatologists had anticipated the forming of El Ni-o at the equator off the shores of South America from as far back as January.

Two months before, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration took its research on the high seas to determine the extent of its presence.

At the time, sea-surface temperatures read two to three degrees above normal between Peru and the international dateline.

Things have changed, Redmond declared.

Now the ocean buoys NOAA reads to monitor its progress dictate temperatures ranging between three to five degrees. Just one degree can mean a big difference.

In addition, the area appears to be growing larger, creating the potential for perilous storms along the coast.

Skiers, boarders, hydroelectric power plant operators and water officials may perceive this past weekend's drenching as good news.

"We wanted to have one good storm before the ground froze," Redmond said.

The moisture penetrated the soil -- welcome news to water officials trying to escape drought conditions.

"If you look at the ground as a sponge, the sponge was basically empty," he said. "We badly needed the rain."

With the exception of a two-day reprieve Oct. 1 and 2, Lake Tahoe had 115 days without moisture.


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