El Nino leaves weather experts with no answers


LOS ANGELES -- As yet another fierce storm walloped Southern California, the National Weather Service's top experts met yesterday in Maryland to discuss whether the abnormal deluge heralds an unusually wet winter for California.

Their conclusion: No one knows.

"We had the best minds in the Weather Service sitting there -- and we couldn't come to a consensus," said Ants Leetmaa, head of a supercomputing project for the Weather Service in Camp Springs, Md.

"The science is still inexact, and we hope to improve on that. California is a very difficult place to forecast," he said.

Further, meteorologists say they aren't sure whether the record-breaking rains are being caused by the return this year of El Nino, the unusual warming of equatorial waters in the Pacific Ocean.

"There is not a clear-cut answer to that," said Vern Kousky, a Weather Service meteorologist.

El Nino, Spanish for the Christ child, got its name from Peruvian fishermen who first observed the abnormal warming of equatorial ocean waters around Christmas. Scientists later figured out that the warm waters spawn unusual weather patterns felt worldwide.

During past El Ninos, Southern California has experienced record deluges as well as record droughts, so history offers no clues as to the future, Mr. Kousky said.

What is clear is that yesterday's storm and the four preceding it hitchhiked into Southern California on an abnormally powerful and wet jet stream.

More typically, the jet stream hits the Pacific Northwest, shifting FTC into Southern California occasionally for three to five days and usually with less moisture, said Todd Morris, Weather Service area manager for Southern California.

El Nino can be blamed for the particularly wet storms, but not necessarily the shift in the jet stream, Mr. Kousky said.

"There is no guarantee that pattern will continue. It can be episodic; we don't do well predicting the future," Mr. Kousky added.

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