Drought-stricken California could face torrential rains next winter, according to federal meteorologists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center in Maryland, who have forecast a 2-in-3 chance of an El Niño event this year, the Contra Costa Times reports. El Niño occurs when the waters of the equatorial Pacific heat up, altering weather patterns throughout much of the region and beyond.
In past years, El Niño has brought heavy rainfall, flooding, and damage to California. A strong El Niño in 1998, for example, brought northern California the worst floods in 40 years, according to the U.S. Geological Survey:
Throughout the first week of February 1998, high winds and heavy rains combined with abnormally high tides to wreak havoc in the San Francisco Bay region. The Pacific Ocean surged over parking lots and the coastal highway at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, and whitecaps up to 6 feet high splashed over the city’s waterfront Embarcadero for the first time in recent memory. Elsewhere, U.S. Highway 101 north of the Golden Gate Bridge was flooded by as much as 4 feet of water from San Francisco Bay, and other low-lying areas around the bay were also swamped, forcing hundreds of people to flee their homes.
The last year in which El Niño was observed was 2009. The phenomenon occurs periodically, but not regularly enough to predict easily. Scientists have recently observed sea level fluctuations often linked to El Niño.