Perhaps no other weather event in recent memory has been more anticipated than this year’s El Nino. From the first media rumblings that it was coming, in 2014, to the “monster El Nino” hyperbole that was still current as recently as last December, Californians have been warned by the experts about floods, mudslides, service disruptions and other forms of mayhem caused by the warming of ocean temperatures in the southwestern Pacific, which in theory should drench us here on the West Coast. El Nino “should scare the shit out of the West Coast,” Thrillist headlined just last month.
Otherwise sober-minded media outlets like the San Jose Mercury-News ran how-to-cope-with-El Nino checklists to help readers save their lives and property, as if in an earthquake or hurricane: get sandbags, keep rain gutters free of debris, and register for emergency alerts on your T.V. or smart device. Local mayors asked California Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency even before the rains came.
But guess what? After decent rains in December and January, during which San Francisco had nearly 11 inches of rain—almost 50% of the annual average–February has turned out to be a bust. As I write this (Feb. 21), San Francisco has had 0.83” of rainfall for the month so far, well short of the average 3.25 inches. We’ve had so many record high temperatures—from the 90s in the deserts to the mid-80s in wine country–with little or rain at all, that photos of bathing-suit clad people enjoying California’s sandy beaches have been all over the newspapers. As a result, people are starting to wonder if El Nino has simply decided to stay away from California this year. Already, scientists are saying El Nino has “peaked” and is “waning.” This, despite the fact that the climate scientists were telling us last Fall that February and March would be the biggest months for rainfall. Predictably, the second-guessing has started. “’Godzilla El Nino’—What Happened?” asks one media outlet. “El Nino is almost dead,” declares Gizmodo.
We could still, of course, get drenched in March, making February an anomaly. But right now, it’s more a matter of hoping than expecting. The seven-day forecast for this week continues to be dry and sunny, with temperatures in San Francisco ranging from the low- to mid-70s. Concerning the climate scientists who predicted El Nino’s deluges, I can’t bring myself to come down too hard on them, because despite our significant advances in satellites, computer modeling and so on, long-range weather prediction is still imprecise. What does make me worry is that there remains in this country a stubborn residue of people who refuse to believe in the reality of climate change, or of human-influenced climate change. These same people are usually of an anti-science bent and are prone to superstition and resentment of scientific knowledge; they take pride in their irrationality as if it were an extension of their politics and religion. And this failure of the climate scientists (if failure it proves to be) in getting El Nino wrong will be enough to arm the know-nothings and enable them to say, “See, I told you. You can’t trust anything these ‘scientists’ say.”