SACRAMENTO — El Niño was predicted to dominate the weather this winter, but a look out the window suggests that it has fizzled.
Local rainfall is almost an inch less than normal, and the Sierra Nevada snowpack is only 86 percent of average.
But don't give up on El Niño yet.
A variety of weather experts predict that El Niño soon will crank open the faucet and blow away the cold, gray sky that has gripped the area lately. They expect much wetter weather through March.
"I'm not wringing my hands terribly much," said Tim Barnett, a climate researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.
"Odds are good to see some pretty good storms later in the winter," he said. "How much rain, nobody can really tell you. All I can tell you is, it will be in the upper third of all the wet years."
A crucial point is that El Niño typically doesn't deliver its punch until later in the winter. So it's too early to fear a fourth drought year.
"I don't expect a whopper," said Maury Roos, a hydrologist at the California Department of Water Resources in Sacramento. However, he added, "I'm optimistic we will wind up getting a fairly decent January and February, probably above average."
El Niño is defined as a warming of the Equatorial Pacific Ocean that's typically in place at Christmas time — hence the name, Spanish slang for "Christ child." This warming of the vast Pacific typically alters weather patterns throughout the Western Hemisphere. In the United States, the Northwest usually gets drier and the Southwest gets wetter.
Can go either way
Central California, however, is right in between these effects, so El Niño can mean wetter or drier weather here. Effects on the Sierra snowpack — all- important to the state's water supplies — also are hard to predict.
El Niño is often hyped in the media because it has, on occasion, brought memorable and sometimes damaging storms.
"There is no doubt that we're having an El Niño," said Bill Patzert, a climatologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. "Now, that doesn't mean it's going to rain. The impact of the El Niño has often been exaggerated."
Patzert is doubtful this year's El Niño will bring major rains. He said its effect is muted by another phenomenon called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, a longer-term change that is trending toward lower ocean temperatures.
This winter is considered a "moderate" El Niño, meaning ocean warming isn't as great as the historical maximum. This makes rain predictions even more difficult.
In a forecast released Thursday, the National Weather Service said El Niño strengthened in December. The service still predicts improved odds for above-average precipitation through Jan. 20, especially for Central California, and continuing through March.
In the near term, expect more fog this weekend, followed by a chance of rain late Monday through Wednesday.
A more ambitious prediction comes from Gregg Suhler, whose company, Dynamic Predictables in Columbia, Mo., developed a unique forecasting tool called ATLAS.
Unlike traditional forecasting that relies on climate observations and historical trends, ATLAS uses thermodynamic principles to tap into recurring energy cycles that drive global weather.
Simply put, Suhler said, there is a certain amount of energy in the atmosphere that has to be spent every year in the form of storms. If it isn't — for instance, during a stretch of drought years — that energy eventually builds up to produce very big storms on a regular cycle.
Suhler said that cycle for the San Joaquin River basin is every 16 to 18 years. It comes back around again this year. As a result, Suhler predicts up to 5 inches of rain in the San Joaquin River watershed in January and February.
Big rain months
"I think February is going to be wetter," Suhler said. "When you do get it, it's going to be one good, strong spike."
He expects two of the next four months to be "significantly wet."
Suhler developed the forecast after the Department of Water Resources expressed an interest. The ATLAS computer model has been presented at science conferences but has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal.
Experts in conventional forecasting are skeptical.
"Over the last decade, we've had a lot of false alarms about El Niño," said Patzert. "As you look back in the historical record, there really haven't been that many of what I call 'macho El Niños.' "
On the other hand, it's worth looking at the winter of 1994-95. It started out dry. Californians feared that one of the worst droughts in history — officially recorded from 1987-92 — wasn't over.
Then El Niño caused major floods in many areas of the state in January and March 1995, including $220 million in damage and 28 deaths.
That was nearly 16 years ago.
"It turned out to be a heavy year when it was done, but it was a late bloomer," Roos said.