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Storm (and Culture) Warning

If another El Nino lands, watch it jump off weather pages and into our psyches


El Nino last blew into town during that longest and grayest of winters. Ever since that 1997-98 season, rumors have circulated that another El Nino is on its way, the kind that could again hammer Southern California with rain, topple hilltop homes in Malibu and generally reshape life as we know it. "That's where the music from 'Jaws,' coupled with El Nino, comes in," joked Bill Patzert, an oceanographic meteorologist at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

The last El Nino took on a California-centric persona that transcended the climate here and became a cultural phenomenon. Since the previous El Nino, when Patzert was interviewed by Dan Rather six nights in a row, not a week has gone by without someone asking him The Question: "In the end," he said, "what everybody wants to know is, 'Is it coming?' "

The buzz picked up in February, when federal scientists reported that an El Nino is on its way, based on telltale signs such as an unusual rise in the surface temperature of the equatorial Pacific Ocean. This afternoon, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are scheduled to issue an update on the anticipated emergence of El Nino, the climate phenomenon that can disrupt weather patterns worldwide. The update is expected to say that a weak-to-moderate El Nino could hit the U.S. this winter.

Of course, El Nino events, which occur every four to five years or so, can have serious consequences. (The last El Nino caused an estimated 24,000 deaths and $34 billion in damage worldwide.) But locally, following the lightest rainfall season in the history of Los Angeles, and with a heat wave underway, anticipation is building for a repeat of the '97-98 winter, when most areas of the state got twice as much rain as usual.

This year's El Nino is not expected to be like the last one, cautioned NOAA meteorologist John Janowiak. A "very strong" El Nino, such as the one in 1997-98, would mean that California could expect another unusually stormy winter, he said. But a weak or moderate El Nino, which might not dominate the atmosphere, does not necessarily mean a wetter winter for the state, he said.

This winter's forecast, though, is not based solely on whether an El Nino shows up and how strong it is; forecasters also will look to climate patterns that can modify or lessen the effects of an El Nino.

No matter what the scientists say, local surfers don't hear much beyond "El Nino," which, in its last appearance produced monstrous waves, said Duke Edukas, co-owner of Surfside Sports in Newport Beach. "Everybody talks about it," he said. "There's supposed to be an El Nino. Mild or otherwise, it was a good time last time. It's bound to be a good time [again]."

Skiers have been buzzing with anticipation since January, said Joani Lynch, communications manager at Mammoth Mountain. "El Nino, whether or not there's a tag with it, mild or heavy or whatever, just the mention of it brings up, 'Wet weather ... it must be ski time.' " Last winter, Mammoth got about 330 inches of snow, which pales in comparison with the 1997-98 total of 540 inches.

The last El Nino unfairly became the scapegoat for every winter storm in California, said Alexander Gershunov, an assistant project scientist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography's Climate Research Division in San Diego. An El Nino creates conditions in which rain is more likely, but "you can't say one particular storm is due to El Nino," he said.

Scientists can explain the way El Nino develops in the tropical Pacific, but that doesn't stop locals from coming up with their own theories. A couple of months ago, for instance, a surfer friend told Gershunov how he knows that another El Nino is headed this way--the shoreline, the surfer pointed out, is crowded with tiny red crabs, the same kind that showed up during the 1997-98 season. (Scientists say the mass stranding of crabs is not related to El Nino's arrival.)

Even before El Nino showed up last time, it was hyped as "the weather event of the century." "El Nino readiness is the newest California craze," the Dallas Morning News reported in November 1997. And then upon landing, El Nino was blamed for everything that couldn't be pinned down. "If I didn't get the part, the show didn't get picked up, the souffle didn't rise, well it's El Nino's fault," satirist Harry Shearer told "World News Tonight" that winter. "You know, it's now the all-purpose Southern California excuse." News media worldwide picked up on the story of the poor man named Al Nino, a retired naval pilot in Nipomo, Calif., who was flooded with phone calls from people who accused him of causing all sorts of problems, weather-related and otherwise.

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