The latest variation in sea surface temperatures from normal. Courtesy NOAA
The latest variation in sea surface temperatures from normal. Courtesy NOAA

Federal climate experts have officially upgraded the growing El Nino condition from moderate to strong, but caution that doesn’t mean Southern California can count on an end to the drought.

Mike Halpert, deputy director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration‘s Climate Prediction Center said that despite the upgrade, the current El Nino isn’t likely to pack the punch of 1997 or 1987.

“We’re favoring a strong event. It could potentially be in the top three, but saying any more than that is really just hazarding a guess, and it’s not one that I’m willing to make,” Halpert said.

He spoke to reporters during a teleconference on Thursday from the prediction center’s office outside Washington, DC.

The upgrade was based on water-temperature readings in the central Pacific, which forecasters said were the warmest in more than a decade.

“There is now a 95 percent chance that El Nino will last through the winter,” Halpert said. “Whether it remains strong through the winter, is not at a 95 percent chance, but we certainly do favor that.”

El Nino is expected to weaken as spring 2016 wears on.

While an El Nino generally means unusually heavy rains, Southern Californians should not expect it to undo a drought that has stretched for four years. Halpert said people should not assume that “El Nino is here to save the day.”

An El Nino affects Southern California though a complex series of weather developments. The warmer Pacific waters release more heat to the atmosphere, causing air to rise and ultimately shift the North Pacific jet stream farther south and east. This typically brings more storms to the United States.

El Nino is the warm phase of a periodic warming and cooling of the Pacific off South America. This cycle is officially called the El Nino Southern Oscillation, or ENSO. The term El Nino, which is Spanish for the Christ child, arose because Peruvian fisherman noticed the warm ocean water around Christmastime.

City News Service contributed to this article.

Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.