Blame it on El Niño

Written by: Kaia Joye Moyer

Last Thursday’s commute home from UCSB—or anywhere along California’s south coast—required a certain amount of “Zen.” If it were not for deep breathing and complete focus, we may have all melted into complete traffic despair. I was on the brink. After 45 minutes of inching onto the 101, I could still see UCSB behind me. I had gone two miles.

Was this a glimpse into El Niño?

Thursday afternoon brought much needed rain to southern California. But maybe too much too fast. The torrential downpours wreaked havoc on southern California roadways, resulting in the closure of Interstate 5 and California 58 due to debilitating flash floods and mudslides. The aftermath was sheer chaos. Nearly 200 vehicles were consumed by walls of mud and rock that washed across the highway, which mounted up to 20 feet in some areas of the 58. The subsequent rerouting of traffic disrupted commutes up the coast of California.

Despite the finger pointing, the storm was not actually related to this year’s “Godzilla El Niño.” It was the result of an unpredictable low pressure system and warm water off the coast. But this reality hasn’t stopped us from blaming El Niño for many of our daily woes. It has been bearing the brunt of many of our complaints recently.

Why is there so much traffic?

Why the sudden flooding? Mud slides? Road closures?

Why is it so hot? Why is it so humid?

Why is my power out?

Why is the water so warm?

Why are there so many shark sightings?

Why are tropical venomous sea snakes washing up on California beaches?

El Niño is everywhere right now, and for good reason. Meteorologists are predicting that this year’s El Niño has the potential to be one of the strongest on record, on par with those from 1983-84 and 1997-98.

But what does that really mean?

We know that El Niño is primarily an oceanic phenomenon, but this redistribution of heat in the Pacific Ocean has greater effects than just warming the water so we can surf without a wetsuit. In California we see the impacts in terms of changes in weather patterns, precipitation, migration routes, biological distributions; flooding and mudslides; and the wish that we had all invested in air conditioning. Globally the results may be much different: drought, natural disasters, issues of food security, possible civil conflicts (see Bren Professor, Kyle Meng’s latest paper).

El Niño isn’t new. It’s not surprising. It’s science. But it’s science with a lot of unknowns and ‘wait-and-sees.’ So the question is: is all of this hubbub worth our breath?

This is what we will be looking at in the coming weeks and months. What is the science of El Niño? How is it impacting the drought, our marine ecosystems, our city’s infrastructure?

Have a question about El Niño? Just ask.


Photos: Francine Orr (LA Times)

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