Cover Stories

Storm Warning

GT1545 coverWEBThis time, scientists say, winter really is coming for Santa Cruz

Last year, hopeful citizens banked on a wet winter and got the opposite—a meager 3.36 inches of rain in Santa Cruz County between January and March of 2015. It was the Great El Niño Fizzle, sparked by the promise of increased ocean temperatures and extinguished by the trade winds, which, in an El Niño event, need to slacken in order for all of that warm water to slosh back to our side of the Pacific.

This year, organizers of the Titans of Mavericks big-wave surf contest have already printed T-Shirts that say “EL NIÑO IS COMING,” and they are right to be excited for larger-than-average swells in the coming months. A much-belated El Niño is coming—the first in 18 years—and it may be the strongest since 1950, when oceanographic monitoring began.

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“It’s right on schedule,” says Nate Mantua, Ph.D., a climate scientist for NOAA’s Southwest Fishery Science Center on the Westside. “I checked today, and temperatures in Southern California are about 5 degrees Celsius warmer than normal, or almost 10 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than normal. Local waters are 5.5 degrees Fahrenheit above average, or in the low- to mid-60s, depending what the wind is doing.”

It’s Nov. 3, and Mantua’s office, which he shares with a 63-pound taxidermic king salmon, is awash with late afternoon sun and the briny smell of the Pacific.

The oceans are warming, the trade winds have already died down, and the usually bone-dry Atacama desert in northern Chile and southern Peru is blooming—a telltale sign that El Niño is upon us. There’s just one thing: if El Niño was, in fact, a boy child gathering strength inside the womb of the Pacific, his sonogram would be atypical, to say the least. Yes, there’s that unmistakable band of warm water bulging along the equator—El Niño’s hallmark—but there are also large masses of warm water, creatively dubbed “the warm blob,” extending, as we have never seen before, from coastal U.S. and Mexico as far north as Alaska.

“We’ve got this incredible warming of the higher latitudes of the Pacific Ocean,” says Mantua, “and ocean temperatures have been record-high for the last two years. That makes this year unlike anything in our historical record.”

The anomalous “warm blob” is raising many questions about climate change and our future—including what this year’s El Niño winter will be like. Warmer oceans mean stronger storms and increased odds of above-average winter precipitation. But just how much rain is the boy child planning to bring us—enough to replenish our parched land? Will it unfold slow and steady like applause or come in fits and torrential downpours, unleashing landslides, floods and hurricane-force winds like the ones that tormented California’s not-so-distant past?

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“We know that no two El Niño events in the past have been the same, even though a lot of attention is being put on what happened in 1997-98 and 1983 [El Niños], because of similarities in the strength of this event to what those two events had, but there is no guarantee that we’ll see a repeat of all of the things that might stand out in people’s memories,” says Mantua. “Odds are there will be some surprises.”

Even with advanced technology—which includes some 70 buoys moored in the depths between Japan and the California Coast—climate prediction is a field riddled with unknowns, probabilities and conservative estimates. How does the saying go? Climate is what you predict and weather is what you get. But one thing is certain: it’s probably going to rain this winter. Possibly, a lot. And maybe, in a way that Santa Cruz hasn’t seen in almost two decades.

Stormy Past

In early January of 1982, a storm sat over the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Bay Area. The rain began to fall during the last quarter of the NFL championship game between the 49ers and New York Giants, pouring through the night and into the next day. At its peak, it dumped 17 inches of rain in a 28-hour period on Lompico. Already saturated by slow and steady rainfalls in the weeks prior, the steep hillside of Love Creek in Ben Lomond liquified, ripping houses from their foundations and claiming 10 lives.

“All you saw were trees sticking out and cars and pieces of houses, and it was right after Christmas so there were Christmas decorations, and there were 10 people buried under it all,” says Gary Griggs, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at UCSC, where he’s taught since 1968, and the first geologist on the scene the morning after the storm. “And they never found them. Actually, one woman survived, she grabbed onto a tree as it went through her house at one in the morning.” To this day, residents of Love Creek still decorate a Christmas tree to remember those who died in the storm.

Mudslides also claimed houses in Aptos and Santa Cruz. Downtown, the San Lorenzo River swelled over its banks near the County building, and soon after, the Soquel Avenue bridge collapsed. The river levees—constructed after the entire downtown flooded in 1955—came dangerously close to overflowing. Soquel Village flooded, and the Old Mill Mobile Home Park was all but devastated.

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“Everywhere we went, we saw pickup trucks filled with shovels, and people just driving around helping complete strangers,” recalls Aptos resident John Yung, who was a 16-year-old student at Harbor High at the time—the back field of which had flooded with 3 feet of water, prompting high-school students to paddle around it in a rubber raft. Yung and four friends piled into his pickup and helped to dig out Soquel Auto—today the Soquel Post Office—which had filled with 2 feet of mud. Then they decided to drive around and help residents. “Because that’s where people really needed help, especially the elderly,” he says.

At Paradise Park, situated along the banks of the San Lorenzo River on the outskirts of town, Yung and his friends helped a man of about 80 named Leo, whose basement was filled with mud up to his front door. “I’ll never forget Leo, he was kind of a character, a frail little grandfather type, but he was cracking jokes and still pretty upbeat about it all,” says Yung, who at one point stepped in the quicksand-like mud and lost his boot—never to find it again.

By the end of the day, emergency dispatch had answered 3,500 calls from around the county—and probably would have gotten more calls had many of the phone lines not been taken out. (These were, of course, pre-cell-phone times.)

“What saved us in ’82 from flooding downtown Santa Cruz was that the peak of the flooding occurred at low tide. At high tide, ocean water can extend up the San Lorenzo River, all the way through the city and it can come clear up to the Highway 1 bridge, but if flood water hits at a high tide, then it’s going to make it even higher,” says Griggs, who notes that downtown Santa Cruz is actually built on the floodplain of the San Lorenzo River.

That nightmarish storm of ’82, which took 22 lives countywide, remains the county’s worst natural disaster. But 1982 wasn’t an El Niño year—that would come the following winter of ’82-’83, bringing with it 15 major storms and about $250 million (in 2015 dollars) of damage.

“You don’t have to have an El Niño year to have a really devastating winter,” says Griggs. At the same time, the storm’s magnitude is reminiscent of the storms that wreaked havoc during many of California’s El Niño years. According to a study published in the Journal of Coastal Research, about 76 percent of the storms between 1910 and 1995 that caused significant erosion and structural damage along the California coast occurred during El Niño years.

“What happened in ’83 was that those storms happened to coincide with high tides,” says Griggs. It’s the worst kind of timing, and the ocean encroached upon the land, flooding several areas of the county. Along the coast at Rio Del Mar, several houses settled down onto the beach after seawalls busted out and the sand was eroded. Houses built on Pajaro Dunes had a similar fate.

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“From about 1945 through the ’50s and ’60s was the period after World War II when almost all of the California shoreline development took place, and it took place in a really calm period,” says Griggs, pointing to a blue seismograph-like segment of a graph of Pacific Decadal Oscillation, or warmer and cooler ocean-temperature periods that fluctuate every 10 to 20 years. (El Niños typically occur in the warmer periods.) “So when [the storms of] ’78, ’82 and ’83 came, all of a sudden all of the people who were settling on the dunes and on the cliffs were just pummeled. They lost maybe 30 feet of sand overnight [in ’83]” says Griggs, who shares his office at UCSC with an archive of some 10,000 slides he took during Santa Cruz’s active past of earthquakes and floods and other natural disasters. “I tell time in disasters,” he says.

Between 1931 and 1982, the coast eroded a total of 25 feet. In the winter alone of ’82-’83, it eroded 46 feet, notes Griggs in his book Living with the Changing California Coast. That year, 33 oceanfront homes were destroyed and 2,000 homes and businesses were damaged in the county.

By the time El Niño returned in 1997, 67 percent of Santa Cruz’s coast had been reinforced with seawalls and protective structures, compared to just 17 percent in ’82-’83, which, along with significantly lower tidal conditions, helped decrease storm damage costs by about 50 percent. Elevated sea levels due to warmer water are another variable at play during El Niño years, as they extend the reach of storm waves. Locally, sea levels are already about six inches above tide book predictions.

El Niño Returns

We still don’t really know why it happens, but when the trade winds—which normally blow toward the equator from the northeast and southeast—die down, it allows the warm water in the Western Pacific to flow back toward the coast of South America and then up the coast.

“The first thing it does is change the climate on opposite sides of the Pacific,” says Griggs. That means drought in places like the Philippines, New Guinea and parts of Australia, as well as heavy rainfall in the eastern half of the tropical Pacific—and some of these shifts are already happening, says Mantua.

“For instance, right now, the Atacama desert in southern Peru and northern Chile is blooming. They’ve had lots of rainfall the last couple of months. And that’s a part of the world that has some of the driest deserts on Earth in the absence of these El Niño periods. It can go years without any appreciable rain at all,” says Mantua, who notes that the same is true for the Galapagos Islands.

“I think the thing about El Niño years that can make for an exciting winter in California, with abundant rainfall and snowpack, is that the storm track will tend to spend more time pointed at us than in an average winter,” says Mantua. “And it will be what’s called the subtropical branch of the jet stream that gets especially active in the winter time.”

During El Niño winters, which typically peak in December and continue through January and February, periods of active storm development at the same latitude as central and Southern California have sent storms barrelling into the West Coast, says Mantua. This happened in ’82-’83 as well as ’97-’98 El Niño years, but we have also had lots of storms like this in some non-El Niño years, he points out.

One concern is that the ominous warm blob could potentially add fuel to storms as they develop in their breeding ground between Hawaii and the Aleutians.

“When we have big storms that do develop and move across that water, they’re going to have strong winds, and they’re going to evaporate a lot of water off that surface,” says Mantua. “They’re going to cool that warm blob, but in the process, they’re going to fuel themselves up. So, I do think that our storms are going to be warmer and stronger than they otherwise would be without that vast area of warm water.”

Another concern for local residents is that storms during an El Niño year typically come from the west or southwest, rather than from the northwest down the coast as in a “normal” year, says Griggs—though he notes that we don’t really know what “normal” is anymore.

Coupled with elevated sea levels typical of a warmer ocean, the more direct westerly wave approach of El Niño winters delivers an extra blow to the geography of Santa Cruz’s coast.

“The wind and wave directions come into the Bay rather than get sheltered,” says Griggs. “If you look at Monterey Bay, the waves tend to refract or wrap around, and so as they come into Main Beach and Capitola, they’ve lost energy, whereas when they come directly from this direction they hit straight on. Places like Beach Drive and Seacliff [in Aptos] all get hammered in El Niño years.”

Other vulnerable areas include Capitola’s Depot Hill, with its 70-foot vertical drop, as well as Opal Cliffs, where houses are situated right on the cliff. Low lying areas like Twin Lakes, Corcoran Lagoon and Moran Lake, as well as some areas in the San Lorenzo Valley are ones that almost always flood. “It just depends on how much water we get,” says Griggs. “So there’s an uncertainty, but it shouldn’t be a surprise if we get floods.”

Thirst for Rain

El Niño isn’t synonymous with rain, per se. Four out of the last six strong El Niños brought wet winters to California, says Mantua. But NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center is calling for “increased odds” of a wet winter in Northern California—to the tune of a one-in-three chance of having a wet winter, and a less-than one-in-three chance for having a dry winter. And while the odds for a wet winter increase toward Southern California, the Gulf Coast and Florida, there’s just a 5- to 10-percent shift in the odds for a wet winter for the Central and Northern Coast, says Mantua.

“It’s pretty subtle,” says Mantua, “but that is the nature of climate forecasting.”

Would a wet winter end our drought?

“While the precipitation outlook suggests good news for California, one season of above-average rain and snow is unlikely to erase four years of drought,” says Mike Halpert of NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. “The drought outlook shows some improvement is likely in Central and Southern California by the end of January, but not drought removal. Additional statewide relief is possible during February and March.”

The average yearly rainfall in Santa Cruz is 29.3 inches, according to data from the Western Regional Climate Center. During the El Niño months of January-March of 1983, Santa Cruz received about 34.06 inches of rain, and 59.7 inches the entire year—about double the yearly average. In the El Niño months of January-March of ’98, we received 38.8 inches of rain, and 54 inches of rain the entire year.

“There was good snowpack in the Sierras, and if we had a repeat of those kind of winters it would definitely put a dent in the drought,” says Mantua. “It wouldn’t wipe out all of our water supply deficit, it wouldn’t recharge all of the ground water that’s been pumped out in the last four years and the last dozens of years, but at least it would help refill reservoirs and recharge our soils and get a snowpack established again in the mountains.”

El Niño was identified by fishermen in Peru and Ecuador as far back as the 1600s—not so much for its weather patterns as for its negative impacts on fishing. The warm waters shut down nutrient-rich upwelling, halting the plankton bloom and subsequently breaking the entire food chain. But El Niño’s warm water can also mean weak upwelling in local waters, too, which could mean poor reproduction this year for Dungeness crab, which are also being plagued by the warm blob’s algae bloom of toxic domoic acid.

The warm water isn’t great for Pacific salmon either, which thrive in cold, upwelled water high in nutrients and a productive plankton community that includes lipid-rich copepods, and other crustaceans like krill, says Mantua.

“During these warm periods we know that it can be stressful for top predators, including salmon, seabirds, sea lions and seals,” says Mantua. Salmon released from hatcheries, which produce most of the salmon caught off the coast of California, are usually fished after they’ve been in the ocean for two or three years, says Mantua, “So it doesn’t have such a big impact on the season that you’re in, but two or three years down the road.”

Similar to past El Niño years, bluefin tuna, opa or moonfish, and bonito—marine life typical off the coast of Southern California—are all currently swarming local waters.

Since the last El Niño, Santa Cruz has experienced almost two decades of relatively mild winters, and Griggs points out that only a small portion of today’s residents were even here to experience the full wrath of an intense storm season.

“It’s like all earthquakes aren’t the same—all floods aren’t the same, and all El Niños are not the same. I’m not sure if people fully understand that,” says Griggs. “I think in terms of flooding, what people are doing is trying to clean out storm drains and get sandbags ready and make sure your roof gutters are clean, which helps the water get out faster.” Even so, “You can’t stop sea levels from rising and you can’t stop the waves from coming,” says Griggs.

Find more information on disaster preparedness and an El Niño Preparedness Workshop from 12-4 p.m. at the Civic Auditorium on Nov. 21 on cityofsantacruz.com.

Managing Editor at Good Times Newspaper |

The managing editor at Good Times, Maria Grusauskas writes the column Wellness, and also gravitates toward stories about earth science. She won a CNPA award for environmental reporting in 2015. Her interests include photography, traveling, human consciousness, music, and gardening. Her work has also appeared in Astronomy magazine, High Times magazine, Los Gatos magazine and on shareable.net.

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