Posts tagged El Nino

Creative Commons Photo by: Rick George

Creative Commons photo by: Rick George

The Los Angeles Department of Public Works Precipitation Map charts both real time and cumulative rainfall amounts across hourly, daily, weekly, and seasonal totals.

The Los Angeles Department of Public Works Precipitation Map charts both real time and cumulative rainfall amounts across hourly, daily, weekly, and seasonal totals.

Starting from four years back till today, the recent El Niño storms have brought the most rainfall California has seen since the drought began. On the statewide level we’ve had lower than average precipitation in December, but starting this month in January, there has been higher than average precipitation with an anticipated continuation through March. This is a common pattern with El Niño.

In Los Angeles, where it is typically drier with less annual rainfall than other parts of California, we have received only 26% of precipitation that we normally receive at this point in the water year. The water year is a duration of 12 months, beginning from October 1st until September 30th the following year, measuring total precipitation (we are currently in the 2016 water year that began on October 1, 2015). Since then, Downtown Los Angeles has received only 1.03 inches of rainfall out of the previous normal total annual rainfall average of about 15 inches.

As expected, our northern counterpart San Francisco has been doing much better. They have received 4.8 inches of rainfall so far this water year, which is about 23% of their average annual rainfall. And they have received 65% of precipitation of what they typically get at this time of the water year. offers many tips for water saving measures in and around the home. offers many tips for water saving measures in and around the home.

The big question on everyone’s mind is whether El Niño will end this recent drought? The simple answer is: no. Californians must accept we are in a rain deficit of at least two years, which means that even with this season’s El Niño rainfall and any additional storm precipitation, we must continue our water conservation efforts. Like someone learning to balance their checkbook after going into debt, we must all learn to live within our water means, noting usage changes are not temporary, but permanent.

For more information about El Nino and drought, visit Berkeley News.

A photo from Kazys Varnelis's The Infrastructural City

A photo from Kazys’s The Infrastructural City

“Cobbled together out of swamp, floodplain, desert, and mountains, short of water and painfully dependent on far-away resources to survive, Los Angeles is sited on inhospitable terrain, located where the continent runs out of land,” writes Varnelis. “No city should be here.” – The Infrastructural City: Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles, Kazys Varnelis

VarnelisEvents like El Niño bring Angelenos together in a communal sense of worry and anticipation. Mainly driven by unpreparedness, Los Angeles as a whole is feeling the toll of physical, mental, logistical, and for the purpose of our focus as urban shapers, infrastructural stress. Any minor interruption in the electric power, gas lines, imported potable water supply, or wireless communication could result in repercussions of exceptionally disastrous effects to city and citizens alike. While the extensive infrastructural networks connect the metropolis physically and virtually – internally and globally with optimized efficiency –  it also renders the city vulnerable to damage when one of these networks is severed.

Questions of risk and resilience constantly looming over each of today’s urban agglomerations come down to really two pillars: design and politics. Politics seeks tangible results and short-term solutions, while design seeks scientifically-informed planning and long-term strategies. Design is therefore challenged by politics and politics of economic systems that shift at rates faster than the architectural and design plans themselves.


Photos of Villa Verde Housing:

What the historical politics of fragmented urban decision-making, engineered solutions, and top-down approaches reflect in Los Angeles is rigidity and permanence. Both of these qualities are not compatible with the qualities of design for resilience. On the contrary, design for resilience emphasizes planning as a set of flexible and responsive strategies. These strategies are context-specific. In this case, Los Angeles carries a uniqueness to its history – site evolution – its ways of being and ways of functioning. As Varnelis strongly argues in his collection of essays, framing Los Angeles as an infrastructural city is required in establishing a natural framework to the understanding, spatializing, and planning for a more resilient urban Los Angeles, specifically as a networked system of flows of bits and matter, all intertwined and interconnected. The infrastructural systems, once the “life-support systems” that sustained Los Angeles, can soon become obsolete, and something is to be done!

Creative Commons photo of the Los Angeles River channel by Downtowngal.

Creative Commons photo of the Los Angeles River channel by Downtowngal.

When considering long-term impactful design in Los Angeles, it is inevitable to revisit the key concepts and approaches of one of my favorite influential architects, Alejandro Aravena. Just last week, Aravena was celebrated as the 2016 Architecture Pritzker Award winner for his work on post-disaster long-term social design strategies.  This news matters because it empowers designers and reinforces the belief that good design is indeed capable of causing change. And most of all, this capability is possible because his work is an exceptional example of design-politics tensions simplified, negotiated, and compromised for the good of all. Aravena translated the once conceptual and speculative approaches of flexible incremental design and socially-based design into pragmatic built projects. Design as strategy is key to the planning of vulnerable cities, whether in terms of planning for or post natural disasters.

What is El Niño, and why does it happen?
El Niño refers to the fluctuations in temperature between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific, resulting in a series of climate anomalies every few years. It is the warm part of the whole ENSO (El Niño-Southern Oscillation) cycle, with La Niña as its cold counterpart. The video above explains the process.

Why should you care about El Niño?
El Niño is part of the global climate system, thus influences not only regional, but also worldwide climate and weather. Due to the climate anomalies that come with its arrival, there are higher chances of extreme climate and weather occurrences, including floods, droughts, forest fires, and landslides during an El Niño season. There are also global environment and economics repercussions, alongside effects upon the marine biology of the Pacific Ocean, during El Niño.

What are the climate anomalies related to El Niño?
The major anomaly connected to El Niño is the higher than normal ocean surface water temperature around equatorial Pacific Ocean. This warmer water disrupts the normal pattern of tropical precipitation and atmospheric circulation. On average, El Niño lasts between 7 to 9 months (called an El Niño Condition); if and when El Niño extends it presence longer, it is called an El Niño “episode”.

Weather during an El Niño is characterized by an increase in the frequency of precipitation across the east-central and eastern Pacific Ocean during winter, sometimes resulting in major flooding. Conversely, in the west-central Pacific Rim, the summer season can be abnormally drier and hotter, bringing along severe drought. This most recent El Niño has resulted in the worst drought in recent two years in Brazil, while the 2015 India heat wave has killed thousands of people because of abnormally hot and dry temperatures without relief.


What are other impacts related to El Niño?
Climate anomalies and temperature fluctuation can greatly affect agriculture, with food shortages and famines a strong possibility because of extreme drought conditions in the western tropical Pacific area. An upcoming consequence of this year’s El Niño will be higher food prices across the world.

Another interesting economic effect of El Niño is the lower price of gas during the winter. In the East Coast of the United States, gas is primarily a heating fuel. However, El Niño brings warm air from the Pacific Ocean, which brings with it a warmer winter season, therefore reducing the demand, increasing availability of heating gas, and keeping prices low.

El Niño can also affect marine species, mainly in Pacific Ocean, due to the sea water temperature change. For example, we’re seeing the appearance of venomous sea snakes washing upon Southern California shores, a species normally found in tropical parts of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The warmer oceanic temperatures are also believed to be associated with the increasing risk of certain disease such as malaria and cholera.

Graphic: Jan Null/Golden Gate Weather Services

Graphic: Jan Null/Golden Gate Weather Services

A brief history of El Niño
The chart above shows the Oceanic Nino Index (ONI) since 1950; the ONI displays deviations of the sea surface temperature from the average. The further the graph point is charted from the 0 axis, the worse the El Niño was. The previous worst El Niño on record happened in 1997-1998, resulting in more than 20,000 fatalities attributed to El Niño, and at an economic loss of $340,000,000. Violent weather, disastrous floods in southern America, severe drought in Central America, and four sequential hurricanes hitting Mexico made the 1997-1998 El Niño particularly damaging.

Graphic: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration(NOAA)

Graphic: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration(NOAA)

precipitationEl Niño in 2016?
Even though El Niños vary in duration and intensity, the meteorological phenomena exhibits some standard patterns that help scientists make educated predictions. Meteorologists predict we are going to have a strong El Niño for 2016, and possibly one even worse than the previously noted 1997-1998 season using prediction models comparing this year with that historic El Niño.

2015 has been the hottest year on record. Alhough El Niño is not the solel reason for global warming, the previous two hottest years on record – 2010 and 2005 – both featured El Niños. On the other hand, the west tropical Pacific region is gaining more moisture than usual this winter and spring. Yet, California’s predicted precipitation peak has yet to occur, meaning Angelenos should expect more wet weather to arrive in the coming weeks and months.

Graphic: National Weather service Climate Prediction Center, California Department of Water Resources

Can El Niño save the severe drought in California?
The increasing precipitation is going bring some relief to drought-dried land for sure, but it is not likely to end the drought. El Niño might bring Southern California more rainfall, but most of our state’s water supply system and reservoirs are located in the north, requiring not only rain, but a stable and sizable snow pack. However, there is now much talk about improving infrastructure to capture as much rainfall as possible for improved water resource management, so there might be a positive outcome in the longterm related to El Niño’s appearance in the wake of an epic drought.

For some tips about how to collect rain water, please take a look at our previous post, 4 Ways to Collect and Store Rain.

Some misconception about El Niño.

  • El Niño causes global warming: It might contribute partially to higher global temperatures, but not entirely.
  • El Niño is directly responsible for extreme weather events.
  • El Niño will only increase the potential and frequency of weather events.
  • El Niño will bring disastrous floods in California: With the increased frequency of rainfall, it is possible we will see floods in California, but not absolutely fatal ones. According to state records, some of the most devastating floods in California history happened outside of  El Niño years.
  • El Niño is only a climate concern: El Niño effects are beyond the climate. The weather abnormalities associated with El Niño can impact the global economy, may increase fetal disease, or even result in species extinction due to the long last extreme climate.

Are there any benefits related to El Niño?

  • El Niño reduces the frequency of Atlantic hurricanes.
  • Winter is warmer in certain regions, and therefore less energy is needed for heating.
  • There is more rainfall for the southwest region of the United States.
  • Ski resorts on the West Coast are opening sooner than usual.
  • There might be chance to swim or kayak on the street.


How can we prepare for El Niño?
First, be calm. El Niño is not going to bring the end of the world. Check out this website put together by the City of Los Angeles informing citizens how to prepare for El Niño. The most important resource on the site as far as I am concerned is to sign up for update alerts for floods, mud slides, or other emergency conditions. It might be also advisable to insure personal properties and vehicles ahead of possible damage related to El Niño.

Overall, we need to be aware of the strong presence of the coming El Niño, paying attention to scientific predictions, and help each as a community to overcome any problems that El Niño brings with it.


With the news of the looming El Niño returning, Californians are gearing up for more water. Continual rainfall throughout winter is expected to quench drought-parched landscapes, bring the L.A. River basin to back to life, and for many, offer a change from the typical dry climate California lifestyle. At the same time there is also a sense of urgency in the air, as both homeowners and city officials make preparations and precautions for flooding, alongside the real possibility of facing urban infrastructures failures under the deluge of predicted heavy precipitation.

Another topic I continue to notice being discussed – beyond the infrastructure of our urban landscape – is how El Niño storms will affect a particularly vulnerable part of our city’s population: the homeless.


For better or for worse, statistically speaking the number of outdoor encampments and self-constructed shelters within Los Angeles has been on the rise. The Los Angeles County increase in the homeless population is due to several factors, including rapid urban development, economic hardship, and the drought’s upside of temperate weather for the last four years. These Angelenos living on the streets are highly susceptible to the dangers of the upcoming El Niño storm patterns.

Homeless ShelterActions are currently being taken by the L.A. County to alleviate this issue by opening and reaching out to the homeless community in high flood zones to take refuge in temporary city mandated shelters. More information about these shelters available at The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

Is there the potential to do more to help the homeless during El Niño season? Yes. But as a landscape architect, I was reminded of several academic projects I worked on back in school that dealt with natural disasters, such as earthquakes and flood plains, and where I was challenged to develop strategies to combat the after effects of these natural emergency occurrences. The upcoming El Niño storms and the homeless in Los Angeles may not be categorized as a natural disaster from a design sense, but maybe there is the potential to approach this topic as a uniquely Los Angeles disaster, one requiring both preemptive and reactive measures where the rain doesn’t leave part of our population literally out in the cold.

Photo by Linda Daley

Photo by Linda Daley

With many warnings of El Niño weather for our area given in advance of its arrival, I was well prepared in my home and garden. Since the first wave of storms was milder than the onslaught of mudslides and floods I created in my imagination, I found myself appreciating momentary views of the rain from my window, and I reveled in my garden’s temporary reprieve from the drought. Perhaps, I thought, the seeds I planted in my garden will have a chance this year and the garden floor will be covered with colorful annual flowers in the spring.

With round one done, I took an inventory of the gaps in my initial El Niño preparations and I focused on my next steps.

CC0 License Photo:

Car Maintenance:  I am quite diligent about car maintenance. As I was driving to work on the first day of the rains, I worried about the wiper streaks I saw on my windshield, which led me to wonder when I last replaced them. Since I keep my maintenance records, I easily put my mind at ease by reviewing them. As I have done with my home, I will double-check my car’s preparedness. I know there are certain things I can check myself, such as windshield wipers and lights. It’s also a good time to check the batteries for the flashlight and other emergency kit items I store in my car.

Pets/Dogs:wetpuppy  Despite my preparations, I forgot to consider the needs of my two dogs. Each dog reacted differently during the storm’s most intense episodes. My beagle was visibly stressed about the weather. When a downpour hit heavily on our roof with a percussive echoing heard through the house, she sought in panic for a place to hide. I read pet experts’ tips for managing this behavior of fear but I’ve tried them before without success for my beagle. In comparison, my other dog was calm about the rain. His issue was the interruptions to his daily walks. I had to get creative about indoor exercise for him, and luckily was able to coax him into running laps around the house.

Neighbor Assistance:Planting-design  I had not considered talking to my neighbors about El Niño emergencies while I am at work or away—and likewise for them. I know most of my immediate neighbors well enough to share with them contact information and the preparations we made for our home. With the latter, I think it would be fun to exchange tips with my neighbors on storm preparedness and learn from each other. In the spring, we can throw a garden party to celebrate getting through the storm together. How neighborly is that!