Dr. Gary Griggs has been a professor of oceanography for more than fifty years. It shows.
Tasked with explaining El Niño, he asks if he could perhaps pull up some PowerPoint slides. Along with the slides, Griggs uses Zoom’s whiteboard function, drawing from memory a serviceable outline of California’s coast. He casts arrows to represent global water and air currents. He is patient and, as any great teacher, admits to what is unknown.
“We can get a rocket to Mars and drive around little vehicles and send photographs back, but we do not know why we have El Niños,” Griggs says.
While scientists cannot necessarily explain why El Niño occurs, they can track the conditions which precipitate it. NOAA, as of July 13th, forecasts a 81% chance of a moderate-to-strong El Niño event and a 25% chance of a more powerful El Niño, as was the case in the winters of 1997-1998 and 2015-2016.
“Like earthquakes and floods, they’re not all created equal. So, we can have major El Niños and moderate or weak El Niño, just like we can have really big floods, or moderate floods, or small floods,” Griggs explains.
A powerful El Niño this year could produce the kinds of storms we saw last winter, hitting areas still recovering from the damages.
WARM WATER ON THE MOVE
In a normal year, prevailing winds push the warmer waters of the equator through the Pacific Ocean towards Indonesia. The water then disperses north and south.
“But during an El Niño year, for some reason, those winds die down. Why, we don’t know. The warm pool of water now moves back the opposite way towards the coast of South America. That warm water then moves up the coast and down the coast. And that has a bunch of effects,” Griggs says.
On the PowerPoint, Griggs displays a satellite image of sea surface temperature. A red band shoots along the equator towards North America.
“We can tell from satellites how big this pool of water is and how warm it is. And we can measure sea surface elevation, so we can see the size of this warm bulge. That’s what’s giving them [NOAA] the sense of, wow, there’s a lot of warm water being elevated,” Griggs explains.
This bulge of warm water tends to increase winter precipitation along parts of the west coast. Warmer water makes for greater evaporation rates which in turn puts more moisture in the atmosphere. Hence, more rain.
“Rainfall, during an El Niño year, is usually higher in Southern California. In Northern California and Oregon, it’s usually less. We can be either here,” Griggs says.
The rain, when it does come, has a big impact.
“More flooding, more landslides, more mudflows: that’s typical during an El Niño year because of that extra rainfall. It also brings storms from the southwest rather than how we typically get them, from the Gulf of Alaska,” Griggs explains.
It was storms from the southwest that did the most damage locally last winter.
“This last winter, even though it was not an El Niño year, we had these storms from the southwest,” Griggs says. “Places like Santa Cruz, Capitola or Rio del Mar: they’re not protected like they are from the northwest swells. And during an El Niño, the storms come directly into those places.”
Historically, El Niño years have had an outsize effect on the rates of storm damage.
“Maybe two thirds of all the storm damage around Northern Monterey Bay comes during El Niño years,” Griggs says.
The City of Santa Cruz has teams and systems in place for storms, El Niño-related or not.
Paul Horvat, Santa Cruz’s Emergency Services Manager, says via email, “The City takes annual winter storm precautions regardless of whether an El Niño is predicted. We do this because we can have very significant, damaging storms in non-El Niño years.”
The city has what is called the EOC (Emergency Operations Center). Horvat describes the EOC as “always in a state of readiness.”
“We are in constant communication with our emergency services partners from the local level up to FEMA before and after each storm event,” he says. “We monitor the weather forecast closely with reports and predictions from the NWS. Staff are updated about the conditions prior to each storm so that they can prepare to respond from the EOC if necessary,” he says.
Santa Cruz also has a Flood Control Manager, Rome Norman. But Norman says that the city’s preparations are the same whether wet or dry.
“We begin our preparations in late summer cleaning and clearing drainage systems in preparation for the first measurable rainfall,” he continues.
FISH OUT OF WATER
Beyond storm-related damages, El Niño precipitates a number of changes to sea life both locally and along the whole of the Eastern Pacific. It does so by shutting down the normal patterns of upwelling wherein cold, nutrient-dense, deep waters move to the surface.
“As a result, we don’t have the nutrients. We don’t have the fish. In fact, off Peru, they have this huge guano industry,” Griggs says.
The abundance of guano relates to the abundance of seabirds which is, in turn, related to the abundance of fish.
“It’s a huge source of fertilizer. We’ve known for at least 400 years that El Niños occur around Christmas time,” Griggs says. “The name El Niño came from ‘the Christ child.’ We can go back to the fishing records and the seafloor sediments and find records of these really rich fishery years and bad ones.”
Locally, El Niño brings a change in the kinds of fish which frequent our waters. Abundance of anchovies and sardines fluctuate within their own multi-year patterns, called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, of which El Niños play a part. Albacore make their way north, along with child-sized Humboldt squid.
On the Santa Cruz wharf, a recreational fisherman reports that the anchovies are not currently running. Instead of anchovies, he catches jacksmelt on each of his six flashing lures.
Those who fish further out to sea might find some unexpected species in the water this year.
“They used to have a baseball team in Monterey called the Monterey Barracudas,” Griggs says, relating a story from local historian Sandy Lydon. “And barracuda is a tropical fish. And people said, ‘Why would you call it that? There’s no barracudas.’ But there used to be—you can go back and see the catch records.”
SHORT ON SOLUTIONS
As for how to deal with El Niño’s impacts, Griggs is at something of a loss. And he is an expert in disaster. He penned Between Paradise and Perils: The Natural Disaster History of the Monterey Bay Region and has just completed the final draft of his new book, California Catastrophes: The Natural Disaster History of the Golden State.
In response to disasters, Griggs says, there is much talk of resilience.
“There is federal money and state money to develop ‘resilient coastal communities,’” Griggs says. “I don’t want to say [that’s] a cop out. But it’s a way of passing it on to something else. That seems like it solves it. But what is that? I keep saying, ‘Show me a resilient coastal community.’”
Santa Cruz is trying.
The 2019-2021 Resilient Coast Santa Cruz Initiative created the West Cliff Drive Adaptation and Management Plan.
One option in this plan is to relocate properties from the ocean’s edge, so as to mitigate wave-related damage. Griggs says that property owners aren’t particularly keen on that idea.
“Words that are most often used today are managed retreat, managed realignment or stepping back,” Griggs says. “And we’ve done that in a few places, but coastal property owners don’t even want to talk about it.”
Tiffany Wise-West, Santa Cruz Sustainability & Climate Action Manager, says in a comment via email: “As specified in the City’s West Cliff Drive Adaptation and Management Plan, adopted in 2021, planned or managed retreat is an option on the table.”
“Obviously,” she continues, “there is more work and community engagement needed to understand when and how to operationalize planned retreat.”
One particularly dramatic area of storm-related damage is the section of West Cliff Drive by Bethany Curve. Vehicular traffic is blocked in that section where most of the road has crumbled away. The bridge over the culvert is structurally suspect.
Josh Spangrud, Senior Civil Engineer, says that, in this area, “The plan is to reconstruct West Cliff Drive back to its original configuration.”
The project, which is in design, is estimated to cost $10 million and, according to Spangrud, “the construction most likely will not occur until next year.”
This section of West Cliff Drive, with its southwest exposure, is particularly vulnerable to coming El Niño storms.
“We have what I call a short disaster memory. An event happens and then: let’s build back as soon as we can,” Griggs says.
An oceanographer to the core, Griggs does not underestimate the power of the Pacific.
“In the long run, there is nothing we can do to hold back the Pacific Ocean.”