El Nino: Helping hand or just a lot of hot air?

Snow in Colorado. Rain in California. Is El Nino the cause, and can it keep the water coming?

February 18, 2016 | By: Steve Snyder

Too big to fail.

No, this isn’t about enormous financial institutions. We’re talking about the biggest, baddest El Nino weather pattern we’ve seen in years.

This year’s version of the warming surface water in the Pacific Ocean was supposed to blast much of California and other western states with potentially record-setting moisture. If you’re keeping up with climate news, California in particular could use the water.

This map of a typical El Nino weather pattern shows Colorado right on the edge of moisture impacts. (Courtesy: National Weather Service)
This map of a typical El Nino weather pattern shows Colorado right on the edge of moisture impacts. (Courtesy: NOAA)

And so far, so good, at least in terms of moisture content. But the key words are “so far,” as even this supersized El Nino hasn’t made a huge dent in the Golden State’s decade-long drought.

So why is Denver Water watching the weather in California so closely? One reason is that water resources for Colorado and California are closely linked. Any moisture California gets is good for Colorado and the entire Colorado River Basin.

We’ve seen a lot of moisture in Colorado this winter, too, and it has really helped our snowpack. But how much is our winter wonderland related to our warm-blooded friend in the Pacific?

“It’s difficult to credit El Nino for all of our weather this winter,” said Laurna Kaatz, climate adaptation program manager for Denver Water. “El Nino typically increases precipitation across the southwest, and our Rocky Mountains are right on the fringe of this area. So El Nino can influence our weather, but it’s not the only factor.”

It’s also difficult to predict what the rest of the winter and early spring will bring in terms of moisture for Colorado, as each El Nino pattern is different. But there are some historical patterns to study.

“Past El Nino cycles have usually brought moisture to Southern Colorado,” Kaatz said. “The three-month outlook calls for above-normal precipitation in Colorado, but nothing is certain here in terms of weather, given our location and topography.”

Of course, as long as the snow keeps piling up in our mountains, we don’t care if it’s El Nino or El-Nacho Libre causing the stir. We’ll take all we can get, especially with Colorado’s unpredictable weather.

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