Federal meteorologists say the current El Niño is already the second strongest on record for this time of year and could be one of the most potent weather changers of the past 65 years.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recorded unusual warmth in the Pacific Ocean in the last three months. El Niño is a heating of the equatorial Pacific that changes weather worldwide, mostly affecting the United States in winter.
“This definitely has the potential of being the Godzilla El Niño,” Bill Patzert, a climatologist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told the Los Angeles Times. “Everything now is going to the right way for El Niño. If this lives up to its potential, this thing can bring a lot of floods, mudslides and mayhem.”
NOAA's Mike Halpert said Thursday the current El Niño likely will rival past super El Niños in 1997-1998, 1982-83 and 1972-73.
The most recent El Niño, beginning in 1997, caused the second-warmest and seventh-wettest winter since record keeping began in 1895. Weather around the country turned extreme, and severe flooding, ice storms and tornados raged from California to Florida.
"It looks like it will be one of the three or four strongest events on record," Halpert, the deputy director of the Climate Prediction Center, said Thursday on a media conference call. "Whether it matters if it's 1, 2, 3 or 4 is debatable."
El Niño usually brings heavy winter rain to much of the Southern and Eastern U.S., and to California. Some are hopeful the rain could help quench the dry state, which has suffered through four long years of drought. But many scientists are cautioning a weary public about the hope of a rain-coated silver bullet.
The New York Times notes that even if El Niño were to bring huge amounts of rain, Central and Northern California, which supply much of the state's water demand, often don't benefit from the weather phenomenon. Most of the precipitation tends to fall on Southern California, which can suffer heavily from floods.
Kevin Werner, the director of western region climate services at NOAA, told reporters on the call that to meet California's water deficit, El Niño would need to bring two or three times the amount of average rain and snow that falls in an entire year.
“We would need something in excess of the wettest year on record to balance that deficit,” Werner said. “A single El Niño is very unlikely to erase four years of drought in California.”
And globally, many fear for countries such as India and the Philippines, which can turn unusually dry, NPR notes. The year 2009 brought the worst drought in four decades to India, destroying crops and causing food shortages, Reuters reported.
Halpert said that's no guarantee of what could happen, and even past super El Niños haven't delivered the rain that California now needs.
Experts note there are very few instances of El Niño to study, so it's hard to predict expected weather patterns.
“The one important element is that El Niño events are associated with large variability of outcome,” Michael L. Anderson, California’s state climatologist, told The New York Times.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.