Nicholas Pinter, El Niño expert

PHOTO by lauran fayne worthy

For Nicholas Pinter, a geosciences professor at UC Davis, this winter’s predicted El Niño weather pattern is about opportunity. Not just for rain—hopefully buckets of drought-busting rain—but also the chance to correct past environmental neglects. In November, Pinter hosted the El Niño Summit, presented by the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, which gathered experts across a spectrum of fields to identify the challenges (and opportunities) brought about by the weather phenomenon. Now, as the region heads into what is typically its rainiest season, Pinter took time to share some weather predictions—and explain why we should keep Godzilla’s name out of it.

How have you felt about the rainfall so far?

It’s been more or less what we’ve expected—nothing dramatic but we’re headed into the usual time when we expect to get more rain. That usually starts in December or January.

Have we started to experience El Niño yet?

That depends on how you define it; El Niño is really is defined by Pacific water temperatures and the oceanographers tell us we’re at or close to the peak [temperatures] now. This is slated to be the second largest El Niño ever recorded.

When was the biggest?

The 1997-98 winter. I was in Southern California at the time and we studied landslides in the area; [El Niño] had a very dramatic effect with heavy muds and debris and area flooding.

Tell me about the summit.

We asked [experts] to, first, put points on the map and [to say] what kept them up at night—what newspaper headline did they not want to wake up to some soggy January morning—and, second, what are the opportunities here? Because every crisis holds opportunity.

What kind of opportunities?

This is the time to correct past oversights in flood protection—neglect. [The summit] was not just a chance to trumpet the dangers of El Niño but also to engage in open conversation. The challenge was that our panel [included people] from all across California—from San Diego to Nor Cal. So it was interesting—both as to what was on that list and what didn’t make it.

What’s of real concern?

There’s a very worrisome setup with the wildfires—that combination of such intense fire on deep slopes and with whatever El Niño brings us.

Let’s talk more about those opportunities.

Flooding is an opportunity to recharge ground water, to pick floodplains correctly and let them inundate with little or no help. It’s a chance to get water back to aquifers—we’ve been drawing on them so heavily.

Will it help the drought?

There’s no certainty that the drought ends with this. The surface supply of water is so severely depleted; many people suggested we’re still looking at a deficit situation [after]. Mike Dettinger [a research hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey] said his bet was for above-average precipitation. But he also pointed to predictions for warmer-than-average temperatures, setting up the possibility that you could have a lot of rain and flooding but snow drought in the Sierra. … We could come out of winter and into spring with runoff headed to the ocean—but very little of the snow pack that we rely on in the summer.

It feels as though we’re doomed.

(Laughs.) No, no—there’s cautious optimism that the precipitation will take a big bite out the drought. Jeff [Lusk] from FEMA [Region IX]—his takeaway was that he had two worst fears: If we were to meet again next spring, one would be that El Niño delivered catastrophic flooding … the second would be that it delivered very little precipitation. The hope is that we come somewhere in the middle.

El Niño myths?

The correlation between El Niño and California’s most severe floods is not there. The really extreme flooding of the 1860s was due to atmospheric river phenomenon, not El Niño. [Such] storms are basically Pineapple Expresses, which form in the equatorial Pacific and travel to California. The biggest danger comes when you get a series of one after another like a train, like a flurry of punches in a boxing match.

It’s been called a “super” El Nino—is that accurate?

I don’t think it’s useful to call this “super” or “Godzilla” or anything like that. It’s an El Niño—it’s a strong one but it’s part and parcel of a couple of other [past] El Niños. There’s good reason to be vigilant and cautious but no reason for apocalyptic predictions.

Thoughts on Chris Farley’s Saturday Night Live character by the same name.

(Laughs.) Is that on YouTube? I’ll have to check it out.