A rainy day in downtown Santa Cruz in October 2021.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

As El Niño officially begins, what might the effects look like in Santa Cruz County?

The climate pattern known as El Niño has officially begun and is expected to bring cooler, wetter winters to some regions of the United States. While the effects on the Central Coast are not as clear cut, Santa Cruzans likely won’t see any significant impacts until the winter months.

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A global heat wave caused by the El Niño climate pattern could worsen extreme heat this summer, but Santa Cruz County residents might not notice any weather effects until the winter, according to the National Weather Service (NWS).

El Niño conditions have begun in the tropical Pacific Ocean, prompting the United Nations World Meteorological Organization to warn that a spike in global temperatures and extreme weather is possible for the better part of the next year.

The phenomenon — a climate pattern associated with the unusual warming of surface waters in the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean — began the same week that the world broke the record for its hottest day ever on three separate occasions. The most recent major El Niño event occurred in 2016, which remains the hottest global 12 months on record, tied with 2020. Of the hottest months in Santa Cruz County since 1895, all but one of them has happened since 2015.

Now, there is concern that El Niño conditions could worsen that extreme heat. However, U.S. residents, including Santa Cruzans, might not notice any weather effects until the wet winter months, says NWS meteorologist Dalton Behringer, adding that impacts are more predictable in southern parts of the country.

“In the Central Coast, the effect isn’t as strong as it is in Southern California, the Southeast U.S., or the Pacific Northwest where the signal is a little bit stronger,” he said, adding that a strong El Niño will typically bring both wetter and cooler conditions than normal in those regions. The Central Coast and Bay Area, though, are harder to predict.

“It’s kind of a toss-up. If you average out all of the El Niño years, we have slightly above-normal amounts of precipitation,” said Behringer. But he explained that things don’t always remain in line with historical trends. This past winter was a La Niña year, which is typically associated with slightly lower levels of precipitation, but resulted in Santa Cruz County seeing a deluge of storms and near-record rainfall levels, he said.

Map showing the typical effects of an El Niño pattern on winter in North America.
(Paul Duginski / Los Angeles Times)

Behringer explained that there are other weather patterns that might or might not interact with El Niño that can either counteract or enhance the major weather phenomenon’s effects.

“It’s kind of like a combination lock,” he said. “There are many combinations of weather oscillations that can happen and change the expected result.”

When might a clearer picture of El Niño’s effects come to light? Within one to three months, according to Behringer — but once again, nothing is set in stone.

“For example, I believe at the end of November [2022], we started seeing a pretty strong wet pattern. We couldn’t predict a record-breaking year, but it hinted towards above-normal precipitation at the end of November,” he said. “So before the pattern starts, we can generally get an idea depending on how strong the signal is.”

That said, if this year’s El Niño brings the expected cool, wet weather, Santa Cruz County could be in for its second consecutive colder, wetter winter.