Weather Service Advises RVers To Be Prepared For El Niño

By Barry Zander

… it’s better to say, “We over-prepared and it didn’t happen,” than to underprepare and only react to hazardous conditions.  And the consequences historically have been significant …

El Niño is coming.  It’s practically a certainty, according to the National Weather Service (NWS), but is that something that RV travelers should care about?

Depends where you are in North America, according to NWS forecast maps and predictions, but if you’re in its most impacted path, you will be affected.  Speaking to an overflow audience at the public library in the mountain community of Idyllwild, California, Warning Coordinator Meteorologist Alex Tardy presented a solid case for what’s ahead for the end of 2015 and the early spring of ‘16.

Most affected will be travelers in Southern California and Arizona, according to the data interpreted by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA).   Tardy said, “The rains and mountain snow are predicted to begin this fall as they do each normal winter; however, the change in the jet stream should bring a more persistent stretch of storms for mid-winter through March.  In the U.S. southwest, expect more frequent periods of rain and snow but not necessarily stronger storms.”

Alex Tardy at Chart Audience

Of importance to RVers, the amount of rain could result in rock and debris flows due to saturated grounds following repeated storms, which will impact roadways.  Burned out hillsides won’t be able to stem the flow of heavy rains, meaning that lowlands and particularly desert areas may have massive flows.  Roads and bridges could become risky.

Drivers in even high-clearance vehicles will face danger when trying to cross impromptu streams, according to Tardy.  In answer to questions about snow related to the precipitation levels, El Niño typically brings moderate snow levels (but not the “Pineapple Express”), but there is uncertainty about how persistent the jet stream will take the storms through the heart of the Sierra Nevada range due to the jet stream prevailing across Southern California.  

Will all this bring an end to the 4-year drought?  “No,” Tardy said. And the Pacific Northwest, already a tinderbox for wildfires, will have less rain with warmer-than-normal temperatures.  The arid condition has occurred because the 48 consecutive months for California prior to July 2015 were the warmest in history, 2.8 degrees above normal.  The snowpack on April 1 in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California was a historic low at 5 percent of average, meaning that it received 95 percent less snow than normal.

There are, of course, skeptics, but in Tardy’s opinion, it’s better to say, “We over-prepared and it didn’t happen,” than to underprepare and only react to hazardous conditions.  And the consequences historically have been significant, such as the strong El Niño years of 1982-83 and 1997-98 winters.
The meteorologist cited previous El Niños – most recently in 1972, ‘93 and ’98 that caused damage, but the worse was in 1965-66, and this promises to be much stronger – the highest rating ever seen this early.

He predicted that when the rain starts this fall, people will not be used to prolonged wet periods because of the long-term drought.  Streams and rivers that have not seen much run-off for years could experience very high flows.  

Tardy warned, “If there is a mid-winter break in the weather, it’s important to remember El Nino has its biggest impact between January and March.  Beginning in January there could be storm after storm.”  The San Diego-based meteorologist noted that localized flooding has already caused significant impact to Southern California’s mountains and deserts, the result of major monsoon episodes during the past three summers.

El Nino Outlook Summary

Measurements taken along the Equator in the South Pacific have been aberrantly different than in the NOAA’s history.  The temperature of the water can be a reliable indicator of what’s to come … and what’s to come is a major shift in the jet stream.  Changing from its pattern of hitting the U.S. Northwest, it is expected to enter Southern California with all its might.  That could mean that RVers will experience more rain along the Gulf of Mexico regions for a brief period, but that will dissipate.  

Taking your rig to Baja next spring?  Be ready for more rain along those narrow roadways.

Tardy’s presentation, backed up with maps and charts, was an eye-opener for those attending.   Deep colored weather patterns educated the audience about what has been happening and what’s expected.

The good-news, bad-news is that it may not happen.  While strong El Niños usually indicates wetter weather, it hasn’t always come to pass.  For example, 1965-66 started off very wet, Tardy stated, but little rain fell after January, leaving Northern California much below average.  In 1991-92, he continued, much of Northern California was very dry.  

If it doesn’t impact the jet stream greatly, prolonged hazardous driving conditions associated with RV travel will be much less of a factor – the good news.  But, on the other hand, no El Niño will mean that the severe drought with low water supply in the West – a major factor in higher food prices across America -- won’t be eased.  Even with El Niño, the drought won’t be alleviated.  

Tardy predicted that if the El Nino effect does materialize, while part of the country won’t feel intense effects from the weather system (except at the grocery store), residents from Southern California to Texas and Florida in the lower 48 states are advised to begin preparing for the onslaught of storms, particularly in areas of poor drainage and low areas where the flow of water from what could be the worse storm system in our lifetimes could change landscaping dramatically.

Barry Zander and wife Monique (a.k.a. the Never-Bored RVers) have experienced 49 states, 7 provinces and Mexico in their 28-foot travel trailer.
They give presentations at RV evens on getting started with RVing, focusing on lifestyle decisions.