January 31, 2016

Stop the El Nino Forecast Complaints!

I have been bombarded by complains from folks regarding the El Nino forecasts.

Wasn't El Nino going to bring dry weather?   Less snow in the mountains?

Complain after complaint.

But the truth is that the forecasts have actually been really quite good, with a lot of the misunderstanding coming from media folks that have not gotten the story quite right.

As they say in sports....let's go to the video tape.

Last summer, meteorologists were sure that a strong El Nino was going to occur this winter.  And we knew what this typically for NW weather:

Before January first there is no real correlation with precipitation or temperature.
After January 1, the Northwest tends to be warmer than normal, with precipitation SLIGHTLY below normal, little snowfall near sea level, and modestly below normal snow in the mountains, resulting in the snowpack on April 1 ending up around 80% of normal.  There is also a tendency after January 1 to have a trough over the northeast Pacific, with California ending up wetter than normal.  We also forecast that El Nino would kill the BLOB.

Don't believe me?  Check my blogs on
Sept 2Dec. 28...and many others.  Nick Bond, WA State Climatologist, was saying the same thing, as were many other local meteorologists.

Believe it or not....reality has followed these predictions quite closely.

The BLOB is dead, as shown by the latest sea surface temperature analysis, with modestly warm water immediately off the coast (typical of El Nino) and cooler than normal water offshore (blue colors).  Good forecast.

At the end of December WA snowpack was huge...about 150% in places.   Now, things have relaxed back to near normal in the Northwest, while California is above normal (see below).  Snowpack percentiles have dropped substantially in the Cascades.  The forecast is right on track.

Folks have been complaining about all the rain around here, lately, BUT IT ALWAYS RAINS A LOT IN JANUARY in our area.  Here is the precipitation departure from normal for the last 30 days.  Slightly drier than normal on the western slopes  the Cascades, but considerable wetter than normal over northern CA.  Good forecast.
Temperatures?   Warmer than normal over western WA and Oregon.  As predicted (although eastern Montana and North Dakota are cooler than normal, and usually El Nino brings warmth then).   Not perfect overall, but good over the Northwest!

Snowfall over the lowlands?  Much lower than normal...just a dusting one day here in Seattle.   Excellent forecast.  

What about the flow pattern over the eastern Pacific and western North America?  Here is the anomaly (difference from normal) at 500 hPa (upper level around 18K feet) for the past month. CLASSIC EL NINO circulation, with a negative anomaly (low heights or  pressure, purple color) over the eastern Pacific. Truly excellent prediction.

One could quibble about details, but PLEASE give meteorologists some credit...we got this one basically correct.

A hell of a lot better than political pundits and the Presidential election!

El Nino is not the end of the world in our area.    And a typical El Nino year is way better than the crazy ridge pattern of last year, a pattern that we believe is the result of natural variability.

Please support KPLU's fund drive to allow it to survive. The link.  On Friday, they reached a major milestone:  one million dollars.  But they need to raise seven million to avoid destruction.   A good segment on the race to save KPLU was broadcast on Friday, found here.


  1. We are 2 inches of rain above our 5.4 inch normal for the month. That is a lot of rain.

  2. It seems right about what i was expecting having read your forecasts over the summer and fall. Noticeably few frosts as well. People just don't actually listen to what you are saying and or don't understand what more or less than average means. And yes, it is always wet in December and January...... always.

  3. Hi Cliff. Does the El Nino mean that I can put plants in the ground earlier this year? I have a friend who refuses to plant before Mother's Day but I like to get an early start.
    Do you have any advice for gardeners who are confused by seed packets and "mean date of last frost" details?

  4. I think some of us interpreted the warmer and drier forecast to mean 70s and sun rather than mid-upper 40s and slightly less drizzle than usual. Wishful thinking of course!

  5. P Aronson - look for local information and ignore what's on the seed packet. WSU and OSU have a lot of good info, for starters.

    If you're west of the Cascades, you really want garden info specific to our local climate.

  6. I agree with Cliff. The El Nino forecast was spot on. There is always some weather chaos that can not be accounted for in a long range forecast. Also, PNW weather is less impacted by El Nino conditions than other parts of the world.

    El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO)conditions are based on a 3 month running mean temperature anomalies in the Nino regions.

    Here is a list of strong El Nino and La Nina. The list begins in 1950.

    Strong El Nino:
    Very Strong El Nino

    Strong La Nina

    A couple items of note in this list:
    There has not been a strong La Nina since 1988.
    An absence of very strong El Nino prior to 1982.

    Why is that? Global Warming (GW). Because ENSO conditions are based on Sea Surface Temperature (SST) anomalies and global SST have warmed, the Oceanic Nino Index (ONI)is biased upward.

    Subtract the warmer ocean values due to GW from the present El Nino anomaly and it becomes much less strong.

    The December global temperature anomaly for the oceans was 0.83 C (NOAA). El Nino alone does not account for the full 0.83C anomaly. It might account for about 0.1 C of it.

    So I disagree with those meteorologists who have called this a "Godzilla" El Nino. It's probably a moderate to strong El Nino.

    The same goes for the warm water blob. GW biased the blob temperature upwards.

    What does this mean for the future? As global SST continue to warm, El Nino conditions of > +0.5C anomaly will be normal. There will be a need to adjust the anomaly threshold upwards.

    All that said, GW is still below the threshold that most climatologists believe will lead to significant climate change (1.5C). So I don't expect glaciers to collapse or the ocean levels to surge with a December land/sea anomaly of 1.11C.

    A back of an envelop calculation points to the 2030s as the first decade when GW meets or exceeds 1.5C. At that time, global warming deniers will be in the same category as those who believed the Sun revolved around the Earth.

    Global warming deniers do not bother me. Prior to 2000, I too did not support global warming theory. The WMO announced in 2000 that Earth had indeed warmed during the 20th century. I took note and re-examined global warming theory.

    When I was a kid, CO2 was only 315ppm and there was no EPA to restrict smoke stack emissions. Today, CO2 is 400ppm and EPA has severely restricted smoke stack emissions. The balance sheet in global temperature forcing has reversed.

    1. Still trying to find some real science in this response...

  7. This is a good explanation....however. It does not explain the fact Central Washington has been 200% of normal precipitation for the last two months, up to today. Also, our temps have been in the tank from December 1 until just the last 3 days. I see the next 7 day forecast is supposed to have a couple days here in the high 30s, then go to the 40s for the foreseeable future, which is normal BTW, for this time of year. I think a lot of people are dinging NOAA on basically repeating the same forecast, ever since last summer, with little to no deviation. They clearly blew it on precipitation and temps in December and most of January. January started off with the coldest temps in many years here with highs in the teens, lows around 0 or below. And if frankly has taken weeks to warm up to the level where we are right now. Although, if the area does go dry for the next 6 weeks until spring, or earlier, I will believe the NOAA seasonal forecast.

    I really hope it doesn't go extremely dry as Cliff is correct about the snowpack. It was running 150% and above through December, but lately is down to 115% in a lot places. So I do hope for the winter to continue, in the mountains, and lower rain is fine. I can tell you the drought is so much improved over last year, which is good for those in my area who do farming.

  8. Your forecasts were and are extremely helpful. Why does above-normal rain keep heading here instead of swinging more into central and southern California--more typical in strong El Nino years? What's the remaining outlook for my friends down south? NWS trend maps keep promising we'll be drier and they'll be wetter.

  9. Where I live near Sequim, our historical average January rainfall is 2.05". But this January, 1.34". We were also a few degrees warmer than the average January.

    I'd say the climate guys nailed January, even back in October.

    It's so easy to forget than an average January is really rainy, so just a bit less than normal is still very rainy. We also have an average January high of 47 and average low of 32 (at least near Sequim). Add a couple of degrees to that, and it's still not warm.

    This seems to be the key issue with interpreting climate forecasts, at least from what I observe. That brown versus green coloration on the forecast maps is usually only depicting small departures from the norm. Differences often too small to observe reliably without weather instruments.

  10. It has seemed wet because there has been rain on most days, but the totals paint a sightly different picture. Up here near the Canadian border, I'm about 1" below average for January. It's also been VERY mild since the second week of the month. My weather station hasn't recorded a low below freezing since the 15th -- unusual for January.

    So, I'd say good job, Cliff. The recent model runs I've seen suggest that February will be even milder, if not drier. I bet that when we look back in a couple of months we'll see that this winter followed the Nino script pretty closely, even if it wasn't as extreme as last winter, or the last Nino back in 2010.

  11. As they say in sports, let’s go to the other videotape:

    The majority of publicized forecasts – including NOAA and the WA Dept of Ecology – were calling for, and I quote from NOAA “Drought: Continue or Worsen” (10/14/15). You called the DOE out twice on their repeated attempts to paint a picture of continued drought, on 11/19 (“ridiculous”) and 12/19 (remember “wet drought”?). On 10/27 the DOE headline on their site was “Historic Drought Keeps Grip on State: Preparation Begins Now for Second Year of Drought”. Is it any wonder that there was, in your words “a lot of the misunderstanding coming from media folks” when the media was being blasted by agencies telling them this?

    The Seattle Times did not manufacture their story headlined “Fall and Winter Forecast: Warm and Dry Across the Northwest” (9/23/15). They were spoon fed it by the DOE stating “Right now, nature seems upside down”.

    So yes, there is a very valid reason for the public to be questioning the forecasts. People remember it. We are sitting at 150% of precip in Seattle for the water year. Cumulative precip is at May levels. And the forecast most people remember – the forecast that was by far publicized the most - was for more drought due to El Nino.

    After that 9/23 Times article, you posted a level-headed response (9/25) that concluded with “The drought is not going to get worse and we should be in a much better place next spring than this year. I really worry that some of the media and in political circles are going too far in painting an end of the world picture for next year. Crying wolf undercuts credibility.”

    You were the only one – the only one – at the time saying otherwise. So please do not go back now and suggest you were part of a choir. You were not. The choir was singing something else, loudly. It was not the fault of the media for printing it, and certainly not the fault of the public for reading and remembering it after they have been deluged with rain for months or stuck on closed passes.

    It is ironic that much of the backlash on the forecasting is due to that hype, when in fact you said the opposite and warned against it, but find yourself posting this defense. That’s fine, but you should also be including the other, larger part of the story: “Crying wolf undercuts credibility”.

  12. January rainfall last three strong El Ninos at SEATAC, source: WU
    January 1983 6.99
    January 1998 6.73
    January 2015 7.45

    Average January rainfall 5.13 (WU)
    hmmm all three strong El Ninos correspond to above average rainfall at SEATAC airport in January.

  13. A quick note: The link to the Northwest Now segment on KPLU is here.

  14. This was the wettest January in Seattle since 2006. Yes, January is always rainy but after a very wet fall and early winter we're now almost 11" above normal. Just looking at January, we're still nearly 2" above normal. The prediction was for "precipitation SLIGHTLY below normal", so that part WAS off for Seattle. I must say, we're feeling mighty soggy! Definitely not the second year of drought that was being predicted at the end of summer.

    However, I remember something about increased rain in the PNW when there is a "super" El Nino. Is that what's going on? Or is the rest of the winter still predicted to be a bit drier than normal?

  15. Michele and others,
    You are looking at one month in one location. Seattle is not representative of the entire region and January is one month. Wait for a few more months so we can see what the winter brings. ..cliff

  16. I agree with what Cliff just posted, again, the entire region has been massively wet, and not just one month. In December, in Ellensburg we got 3.12 inches, measured at Bowers, and normal is 1.56 inches of precipitation, 200% of normal. In January we received 1.69 inches of precipitation and normal is 1.12. This is 150% of normal. I do think February is actually going to end up dry or maybe just normal, because I don't see anything major coming down the pipeline. Maybe a skiff, like around an inch Weds. night into early Thursday morning and perhaps a little rain this weekend, but not a bunch of anything else. A lot of the state has been extremely wet since late November, but like I said above, if the next six weeks go to extreme dry conditions and we have above average temps, I will say the NOAA seasonal forecast was correct. But right now, it is way wrong on precipitation. I will say that if anything, the El Nino just might have thrown a massive wrench into predictions and made the weather a bunch more volatile this year.

  17. The Seattle rains are not isolated. Portland had record rains. GW is having an impact on this El Nino. See excerpt below:

    Hey, we luv ya Cliff, but show a little flexibility. El Nino characteristics are not written in stone.


    Looking at the global scale, what jumps out like a sore (red) thumb is the vast swaths of warmer-than-average temperatures across the world’s oceans, especially across the tropics and subtropics. “Things are very, very warm globally, and subtropical ridging has been unusually pronounced this year,” said Daniel Swain (Stanford University), author of the California Weather Blog. “This ridging includes the semi-permanent Pacific High, which has been largely responsible for keeping the storm track aimed at Northern rather than Southern California.”

    Swain added: “On a basic level, warm El Niño forcing puts a lot of heat into the tropical atmosphere and ultimately causes strengthening/straightening of the Pacific jet. That has happened this year, though it has occurred 500 or so miles north of what many people were expecting--a small shift in subtropical ridging by global climate standards, but a critically important one if you happen to live in Los Angeles.”

    What’s different about this El Niño
    Every El Niño has its peculiarities, and the blockbuster event of 2015-16 is no different. Figure 5 (below) shows the SST departures for the six strongest El Niño events since 1950. One notable difference between the current event and past ones is the dramatically warmer Niño4 region--the westernmost area, far out in the equatorial Central Pacific. This toasty Niño4 helps explain the turbocharged Central Pacific hurricane season of 2015, which sloshed into January 2016 with the unseasonable development of Hurricane Pali--the first hurricane known to prowl within one of the Niño regions shown in the map. It’s not yet clear how the distinctive SST pattern of the Niño regions this winter is intersecting with other factors, including the widespread oceanic warmth elsewhere.

  18. I for one am not complaining. Was expecting another dud ski season but it's been ok so far. Very, very thankful.
    What I cannot understand are the folks who desire year-round warm and dry. We just completed the hottest summer on record - and a long stretch of months w/ above avg temps - yet the complaints start after a few rainstorms.
    No lowland snow for years. When was the last day it stayed below freezing?
    And the occaisional Pineapple Express jacks up our rain totals, no? It's not as if it's been raining non-stop for months.
    Anyway, I'm in the minority. I like the cool and rainy, and mountain snow. I even like the dark. Again, thankful for our winter so far, and for your work Cliff.

    1. I'm with you, dpc! The lovely trees we have here (upon which must of the beauty of the area depends in some way) DEPEND on all the rain. January has always been wet except the last two years. We are just getting refilled after 2 years of insufficient rainfall.
      Really, if you want dry and anything above 55 degrees in January you're going to need some long winter vacations away!

  19. Glad you addressed the ongoing complaints, Cliff, especially as so many comments on this blog repeatedly claim that forecasts have been wildly off-base. It hasn't seemed so to me. Each of us is necessarily and understandably coming at it from a subjective, personal perspective: what happens in our backyard is what impacts us, and we tend not to realize or accept that the reality down the road may well be otherwise.

    Case in point, in the comments above, two people above noted that January rainfall in their areas was below average. But someone else insists that "the entire region has been massively wet" ~ apparently disbelieving that such a generalization is clearly false. In other words, if the forecast wasn't "right" for me, it was "wrong" for everyone. Okee-doke!

  20. Moreover, the strongest El Niño events, of which this is definitely one (and has been for some time), do NOT tend to be dry in the PNW. If anyone was expecting a dry winter "because of El Niño," they were operating on unrealistic expectations.

  21. Appreciate your blog and your comments. I'm looking forward to the rest of the season.

  22. Sooner or later we will have a month that comes in under normal precip. I expect a whole bunch of “I told you so’s” when that happens and even more “Here comes another drought!!!!” But it will not erase the fact December was one of the wettest on record at SeaTac (210% of normal), that November was 127% of normal, that October was 132% of normal, and we just finished January at 134% of normal. And no one came close to predicting it.

    Can we please stop trying to revise/ignore history and own up to the fact the majority of the seasonal forecasts surrounding El Nino for these months here failed? Or maybe better yet, try to find out why they were wrong so we can get better next time? Cliff is absolutely correct that “crying wolf undermines credibility”. That is what is playing out right now, and the public is well within their right to ask why. The really easy way to stop it from happening is for the people making those forecasts to - you know - stop crying wolf.

    Cliff, keep up the good work.

  23. People always need something to complain about.

    My complaint? Where's the lowland snow?! Meteorological winter is drawing to a close, and barely anything in the way of snow down here.

  24. Cliff you are appreciated!!! Thanks for all you do.

    Hopeful for mid-to-late Feb snow in the passes. Even if it's just enough to maintain the bases. Already skied twice as much as last season (although not hard to do) and loving every minute of it. Crossing fingers it doesn't go sideways and we can ski into April. No complaints here.

    Hopeful you'll do another long-range PNW skiers forecast for mid-to-late February.

    Keep up the good work!

  25. Colleen: If you take the whole regions totals, my statement is correct. Not everywhere got completely drenched, obviously As you have stated more than a few times, your area of the state has been an exception. If you do not believe what I am saying, check this link out:http://www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov/products/analysis_monitoring/lanina/enso_evolution-status-fcsts-web.pdf

    This is NOAAs latest El Nino update. And while I have serious issues with NOAAs predictive ability as of late, this is just a report of scientific measurements. One thing NOAA is great at....data collection. It clearly states, if you scroll down to precipitation for the last 90 days, it clearly shows massive amounts of green and dark green in the PACNW. What is this? It means we have gotten well above, from 150% up to 400% in some areas. Snoqualmie Pass had the most snow of any December on record, 193 inches. This is actually a good thing as it looks like the area is going to go into an extended dry period after the storm on late Weds. night, Thursday morning. But there is no way you can argue the region in general has been slammed since mid November with rain and snow.

    I also clearly stated I would accept NOAAs winter forecast, if it gets decently warm and dries up for the next 6 weeks. That would balance out the massive wet portion of winter we have already received and the cold temps in Central Washington.

  26. From Dec 29….“The bottom line: enjoy your skiing NOW. You should not expect the second half of the winter to bring bountiful snow like the first.”

  27. I come here for Cliff's blog posts, but I stay for the chorus of cherry-pickers, the reading comprehension-challenged, and of course the folks who freak out over long-range, low-resolution forecasts that don't align perfectly with their backyard precip readings. I'm glad they want to try their hands at meteorology; it's going to cause a lot less trouble than playing backseat brain surgeon.


Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

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