Godzilla, The Blob, and Son of Blob: an El Niño reality check

By Tom Yulsman | October 14, 2015 10:15 pm
reality check

A spear of exceedingly warm sea surface temperatures projected across a large portion of the equatorial Pacific Ocean in early October — a signature of the strong El Niño event now underway. (Source: NOAA)

Back in August, a respected NASA scientist told the LA. Times that conditions in the Pacific Ocean were pointing toward the potential for a “Godzilla El Niño.”

Meanwhile, a science blogger for the NOAA nicknamed it “Bruce Lee.”

Time has proved them right. The latest data released by the U.S. Climate Prediction Center, show that if El Niño continues to develop as forecast, it will go down as one of the most muscular on record.

But really, who cares about data on exceedingly warm sea surface temperatures projecting like a spear across a large portion of the equatorial Pacific? (Okay, I do. See above.) Or the weakening of the trade winds along the equator? Or any of the other factors that go into El Niño forecasts? What most folks probably want to know is what’s going to happen where they live.

And here’s precisely where things get trickier than some of the things you may have been hearing.

Some of the stuff I’ve heard is just dang silly — and worse. For example, back in August a Denver TV meteorologist had this to say about how Colorado ski areas will be affected by El Niño:

I think Wolf Creek will be the king this season with 140 percent of normal snowfall. Telluride, Durango and Silverton are in good position and should end up with 100 percent to 120 percent of normal snowfall.

This arrestingly specific prediction is certainly possible. It may be even probable. Even so, I think it’s a little nutty.

If you’re wondering why, keep reading. What follows is my attempt at an El Niño reality check.

Let’s start with a question posed last week to Greg Carbin, Warning Coordination Meteorologist at the U.S. Storm Prediction Center, at the Society of Environmental Journalists meeting in Norman, Oklahoma. My friend and colleague Bob Henson of Weather Underground was the questioner:

This El Niño is one of the strongest on record. You would expect from precedent that we would get predictable impacts around country. And the stronger the El Niño, the stronger the connection. How queasy are you about what’s been said about this?

Carbin’s answer: “I’m very queasy.”

Carbin may not be an El Niño expert per se, but he sure knows a thing or two about the fickleness of weather. He plays an important role in the National Weather Service system that issues watches for severe weather events. And I’m guessing he has been burned more than once by a forecast that turned out to be wrong.

With that in mind, consider Carbin’s own reality check: Just because strong El Niños have tended in the past to encourage certain weather patterns across the United States — including above average precipitation across all of California — that does not mean this Godzilla El Niño will do the same thing.

“These are nonlinear systems,” he says. “So just because El Niño looks like it did one or two times before, that does not mean you can say x = y . . . Slight changes in small-scale conditions can have big effects.”

A key aspect of Carbin’s cautionary statement is his reference to “one or two times before.” He’s saying that very few strong El Niños have been observed with modern methods. (But for the record, more than one or two.) So the statistics available for basing forecasts are not as, shall we say?, robust as they could be.

And while those relatively thin statistics show that a strong El Niño tilts the odds in favor of greater than normal precipitation across California and the southern tier of the United States, they also show that things don’t always play out as expected.

reality check

Winter season precipitation anomalies during strong El Niño events. (Source: NOAA. Animation: Tom Yulsman)

The animation above shows how winter precipitation during all of the strong El Niño events on record have varied from the long-term average. (Blue-green tones indicate wetter than average conditions.) In most of these events, the bulk of California got a good dousing. Let’s hope that this pattern holds this year!

But in the 1965/1966 and 1991/1992 events, snowpack in the Northern California mountains — which play a critical role in the state’s water supply — didn’t get the expected boost.

In fact, by my (admittedly unscientific) reckoning, 28 percent of the time strong El Niños have not delivered quite as promised.

So if you hear someone say that a specific ski area is going to get hammered with snow this winter thanks to El Niño, you might consider reaching for the ‘convenience bag’ in the seat-pocket in front of you…

reality check

Warmer than average sea surface temperatures dominate large parts of the Pacific Ocean. The large patch of warm water south of Alaska has been dubbed “The Blob.” There’s an even warmer patch (let’s call it “Son of Blob”) in the subtropics to the south. Then there’s the “Godzilla” El Niño characterized by the spear of warm water along the equator.

There’s another reason to be just a tad queasy as well: For much of 2015, the Pacific Ocean hasn’t looked like anything seen during previous El Niño episodes. In addition to Godzilla lurking along the equator, we’ve also had “The Blob” — a huge and dynamic pool of extraordinarily warm surface water that’s now sitting south of Alaska. (See above.)

And now we also have an even toastier gigantic patch of warm water in the subtropics, extending from Hawaii to North America. Let’s call this “Son of Blob.” (Why not have some fun?)

I’m not a meteorologist, just a journalist. But I’ve been covering El Niño for longer than I care to admit, and I have to say that this is just dang weird.

More importantly, experts agree. As Greg Carbin puts it, “It’s highly anomalous. We’ve not really seen anything like it in the observed record.”

Atmospheric scientist David Parsons, director of the School of Meteorology at the University of Oklahoma, agrees that what we’re seeing now in the Pacific is, well, dang weird:  “We’re in a regime we haven’t seen before: a strong warm blob, and a strong El Niño.”

With that in mind, he jokes that “I’m delighted I don’t have to make seasonal predictions.” His point: When conditions are unprecedented, we shouldn’t discount the possibility of surprises that defy predictions.

That said, there are actually some hints now that The Blob is weakening. So maybe Godzilla will soon splatter it and return the Pacific to a condition that looks more akin to what was seen in prior events.

William Patzert, a climate expert at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, is convinced this will happen. If it does, we can be more confident that the Godzilla El Niño will deliver desperately needed precipitation not only to Southern California, which El Niño’s tend to do, but to the northern part of the state as well, which the odds favor only during strong events..

Quoted in the Sacramento Bee the other day, Patzert had this to say:

At this point – at this particular time – this is too large too fail . . .  People like to be conservative. They don’t want to stick their neck out. But this is definitely the real deal.

Patzert is no El Niño newbie. And he is, in fact, that well respected expert I mentioned at the beginning of this post — the one who originally called this El Niño “Godzilla.”  He sure got that right. So I’m thinking what he says is probably a good bet.

But what about that Thing I’m calling “Son of Blob? In a Weather Underground post today (headlined “Blob Watch…”), Bob Henson says that it:

. . . could take longer to scour out, as [these warm waters] are partially a product of the El Niño that will likely remain in place through most or all of the winter. We can expect this southern blob-like feature to help provide warm, moist air for any Northeast Pacific storms that dive toward California.

So Son of Blob might actually enhance Godzilla’s assault? I trust Henson, so perhaps this a good bet too.

But we should not forget that in the end, El Niño is something like a bartender.

No, I didn’t make that up. Deke Arndt, chief of the Monitoring Branch of NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, did. It’s a metaphor he uses to help us understand that while a strong El Niño might behave reliably most of the time, we can’t count on him to do so always.

As Arndt wrote recently:

Let’s say you have a favorite establishment, where everybody knows your name, and they bring you “your” beverage on sight. And then one night you go in, and based upon your past experience, you sorta expect the bartender to bring you your favorite beer. Instead, maybe he unexpectedly brings you a warmer-than-normal beer, or even <shudder> a wine cooler. El Niño is like that bartender. Seeing him when you walk in may tilt your odds toward getting your favorite beer, but it’s not a guarantee. In other words, sometimes El Niño is the bartender who doesn’t bring you what you ordered.

To bring this full circle… If you drink enough of that beverage you didn’t order, you might get, well, queasy.

ADVERTISEMENT
  • OWilson

    The hyperbole concerning normal weather phenomena is currently reaching epidemic proportions.

    It is also threatening our very language.

    I mean, how many more common terms have been maligned, like record breaking, tipping point, catastrophic, now we have Blobs, and Godzilla.
    Look up “alarming climate change”, then “alarming terrorism”. You’ll see what I mean. No comparison.

    I mean, where do you go after “The Greatest ever Threat to Mankind” :)

    Maybe a new language dictionary just for for warmistas?

    • Jasin Colegrove

      Wait a minute, so Godzilla isn’t already a made up word?

      I think I need a reality check

      • OWilson

        We need to tone down the extreme verbiosity for sure.

        • lesizz

          Spot-on.
          We can start with changing “The Grand Canyon” to “The Nice Canyon”

          • OWilson

            I was thinking something more along the lines of calling “The Greatest Threat To Mankind” what is actually is, namely “weather”. :)

    • Tom Yulsman

      Mr. Wilson: I’m glad you liked the article.

      • OWilson

        But Tom don’t you ever wonder why “climate change” is always at the bottom of the issues that real folks care about?

        Somewhere below athlete’s foot :)

        For a clue, see an excellent article on “Climate Fatigue”, by the Guardian, a AGW supporting publication.

        After a point, alarmism becomes counter productive and is actually dangerous.

        That’s the only real “tipping point” that we have actually passed.:)

        • Tom Yulsman

          Mr. Wilson: I don’t believe my article says anything about climate change. The whole point was to tamp down the craziness about El Niño. Do you care about anything other than climate change? I’m thinking that you and the activists on the other side of the issue are like two peas on opposite sides of the same pod. My suggestion: Lighten up and geek out on weather for a change. (I have a post coming up that will be right up that alley — about the strange, zombie-like cut-off low that lurched around the Southwest for two weeks, finally clobbering SoCal the other day. Check back, and geek out.)

          • Rylee Brown

            “Some people”– need I mention names? Have better things to do then hate around on everyone else! I think this article is fantastic! Two thumbs up from me, Tom!

          • OWilson

            C’mon Tom, get real.
            Your blog is found under the “Climate Change” section of your magazine.
            It’s where curious school kids will go to find examples of these “Extreme Weather Events” that are claimed to be the harbingers of Climate Change. :)

  • Jasin Colegrove

    I was with you right up until that last sentence, no matter what you drink ,being it alcoholic, you eventually always get queasy. Not sure how that was supposed to finish the article, but it was a big fat failure!

    We can also condense this article to a one liner. It’s the weather and we still have no idea how to predict it! expect the worse and hope for the best Californians.

    • Tom Yulsman

      Actually Jasin, we have a very good idea how to predict weather. And usually — but not always — forecasters do a remarkably good job at it. The issue I raised in this story was not weather forecasting, per se, but how a complex set of climatic conditions that have never been seen before will influence weather patterns months down the road. This is a very different issue than “weather forecasting.” As for you not liking the ending, I’m sorry about that. I was merely trying to make you smile.

  • Pdrucker

    Thanks for the great article Tom. As someone finally getting their head in the El Nino and Climate Change discussion this was very helpful.

    • Tom Yulsman

      You’re welcome!

    • wangweilin

      I read the article. I searched the article and I can’t find a darn thing about climate change. Bias much?

  • Overburdened_Planet

    Carbin may not be an El Niño expert per se, but he sure knows a thing or two about the fickleness of weather. He plays an important role in the National Weather Service system that issues watches for severe weather events. And I’m guessing he has been burned more than once by a forecast that turned out to be wrong.

    fivethirtyeight website:
    5/27/15
    Three Out Of Every Four Tornado Warnings Are False Alarms

    This has been the case for decades. Forecast verification data from the weather service over the past two decades shows that for all the advances technology has provided to forecasting, the agency has made only a relatively small dent in how often it’s wrong when issuing a tornado warning (from 80 percent in 1989 to 72 percent in 2014).

    Carbin said a new challenge for NWS is how to handle the massive quantities of data being produced by rapidly advancing technology when staffing levels have remained static or dropped at the agency.

  • BillBasham

    How many climate models predicted this specific configuration of areas of greater than normal ocean temperature?

  • Lorie Franceschi

    Ever notice that in most maps, the lines of rain and snow stop at the state lines?

  • ArtiCate🎨

    Take a look at the Fukushima radiation animation forecast from the incident date till now and the pattern looks similar.

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

ImaGeo

ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Collapse bottom bar
+