Scientists at NASA are now saying that the massive El Niño we’ve all been talking about for the past couple of months is “too big to fail.” And while Southern California will assuredly get the worst of it, Northern California will not go unscathed. In fact, it’s likely to be as big, if not bigger, than the last two strongest El Niños on record (1997-'98 and 1982-'83), during which there was millions of dollars' worth of damage and numerous fatalities.
We talked to three experts: Ryan Walbrun, a meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Eric Holthaus, a meteorologist at Slate; and Bryan Allegretto, a forecaster at OpenSnow, to get their thoughts on how bad this winter could really get. They were all very careful to reiterate that these worst-case scenarios may not happen at all, but Walbrun was also quick to remind us that there’s a big wild card for this El Niño since we’re coming out of a historic drought. The last two strong events were both after wet winters, whereas this year, the ground isn’t ready to absorb systems that bring too much rain too quickly. In other words, there’s no precedent for this El Niño. This winter we will face the great unknown.
There is, however, one certainty: Southern California is going to get hit. Hard. Allegretto, who produces amazingly accurate snow reports for Tahoe, says he’s not confident predicting that parallel outcome for Northern California, as the pattern isn’t the same as it was for the ’97-’98 and ’82-’83 events. “The entire Eastern Pacific was cold in the last two events, and now it’s warm,” Allegretto says. Also note that even if we do get a ton of rain, that doesn’t mean we’ll get dumped on by snow. The ’97-’98 El Niño was the strongest on record, yet we got more snow in ’82-’83 because it was colder. Holthaus agrees: “There’s a chance you can have an above-normal rainfall year and below-normal snowfall because winters are getting warmer.”
Still, whether it comes in the form of inches of rain or feet of snow, there’s a chance this El Niño could turn our lives upside down. Here are just a few ways chaos is likely to ensue:
1. Massive mudslides and landslides
El Niño isn’t even here yet, but those rainstorms a couple of weeks ago in Southern California gave us a taste of what we can expect. The pressure system was slow, which allowed 1.81in of rain to fall in 30 minutes in the Antelope Valley. The result? A huge mudslide that took out eight miles of Highway 58, trapped 200 vehicles, and forced people to climb onto the roofs of their houses to escape the onslaught of wet earth. It’s hard to know where these slides will occur, but folks in areas where there have been recent wildfires should be the most concerned. Holthaus says, “The fire bakes the ground and clears out all of the underbrush, so it makes mudslides more likely to happen.” Unfortunately, this is one you can bet on. “At least a few of those are guaranteed,” he says. So stay alert Napa, Sonoma, and Lake Counties. More than 100 Californians have been killed by mud and landslides in the past 30 years.