El Nino is here through spring | TahoeDailyTribune.com

El Nino is here through spring

Chris Wellhausen/Tahoe TribuneThe calm surface of Emerald Bay could be ruffled by more of the tumultuous weather the basin had last month.

TAHOE CITY — The weak-to-moderate El Nino affecting weather in the Sierra Nevada this year is expected to continue to bring above average amounts of moisture to the region through March, a climate expert says.

El Nino describes the warming of thousands of miles of ocean off the coast of South America. The warmer waters influence the global climate, causing relatively dry places to get more moisture and wet places to get less.

Climatologists are predicting a 40 percent chance that a large number of storms will continue to roll through the region. But they say they have no way to determine if the storms will drop enough moisture to pull the area out of the drought it’s been in during the last three years.

La Nina, which means ocean temperatures in the Pacific are colder than normal, is what put the Northern Sierra in a drought, said Edward O’Lenic, chief of climate operations at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

O’Lenic spoke Tuesday at Operation Sierra Storm, an annual weather conference at the Resort at Squaw Creek.

He said there have been 12 El Ninos in the last 50 years. A British climatologist named Sir Gilbert Walker, who crunched global weather data for a living, was the first scientist to document what became known as El Nino.

Walker made the discovery around 1920 but the phenomenon has existed for thousands of years.

“El Nino tends to last on the order of a year,” O’Lenic said in an interview Wednesday. “Occasionally it will last two years running. No one really knows why El Nino persists.”

O’Lenic said his staff of climatologists will probably make predictions for next winter in May.

“We’re still in the discovery phase in El Nino,” O’Lenic said. “We’re being taught humbling lessons by nature.”

In the Sierra, a winter season affected by El Nino tends to be a warmer one, said O’Lenic, but they can also end up being drier than normal seasons.

“But there’s a higher probability it will be wet,” he said.

The last El Nino to affect the Sierra came in the winter of 1997-98. It was much more powerful than this El Nino.

The meteorological phenomenon led to a 100-year flood on New Year’s Eve after rain melted a deep snowpack. Homes at the Tahoe Keys got the brunt of the flooding.

— Gregory Crofton can be reached at (530) 542-8045 or by e-mail at gcrofton@tahoedailytribune.com

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