A rare third year of La Niña is on deck for California, forecasters say. Global warming will continue as long as it lasts. And as always, the science is complex. But we can answer one essential question: Is the state at risk of drought—or more, if a stronger El Niño does come to pass?
California has been enduring its worst drought on record for six of the past seven years, and this year could be at risk of going down in history as the state’s driest on record. And although weather is notoriously difficult to predict with 100% certainty, there’s a good chance the drought will worsen even if the El Niño that’s been building up for months comes to pass before the season ends.
There are several factors that could lead to prolonged and severe drought conditions in California, as well as possible El Niño effects. And while not all of them are completely dependent on changes in the Pacific Ocean, any of them can lead to greater risk of drought.
“I think if we get into a long-term drought and we see conditions that are extreme, that’s not good news for California,” said Bob Carter, a climatologist with the Department of Water Resources. “It comes back to the fact that conditions in the Pacific have been getting drier.”
A brief look at the three main drivers of climate in this season of extreme weather.
Global warming: We’ve already hit the beginning of the warmest year, with the average temperature in California recently hitting a record high of 86°F in the south end of the state. And the average temperature in Oregon this month was also near the warmest mark on record.
“The global climate has started warming, and that’s been a problem for California as well,” Carter said. “I think it’s a very bad thing.”
Last month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that a strong El Niño event—the periodic warming of the atmosphere and oceans over the ocean—is occurring, and it’s expected to continue into the fall. El Niño is known for producing stronger and more widespread rainfall in the Southern Hemisphere, where the United States sits in the middle of the Pacific.