A sign referencing the drought is posted on the side of the road on April 24, 2015 in Firebaugh, California.
A sign referencing the drought is posted on the side of the road on April 24, 2015 in Firebaugh, California. Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

Stronger El Niño Could Bring Drought Relief to California

May 14, 2015

The El Niño weather phenomenon is expected to be stronger and last longer in the Northern Hemisphere than originally anticipated, U.S. weather forecasters said Thursday — raising the possibility that it could bring much-needed rain to drought-stricken California.

The cyclical weather event has an 80% chance of continuing in the Northern Hemisphere through the end of the year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). El Niño usually lasts several years, beginning with warming in the Pacific Ocean and affecting weather patterns across the globe.

"We’ve seen continued evolution toward a stronger event," NOAA official Mike Halpert told TIME. "Last month we were calling it weak, now we’re calling it borderline weak to moderate."

The new prediction make it likelier that El Niño could provide California some relief from its devastating, years-long drought. Five out of six times there's been a strong El Niño, Northern California has been wetter than average. But forecasters hesitated to say for certain whether it would last long enough to make a difference. "While that’s certainly on the table as a possible outcome we just don’t have enough confidence," Halpert said.

Australian authorities predicted a "substantial" El Niño event earlier this week. But while a strong El Niño has the potential to improve drought conditions in the U.S. the opposite is true in Australia. Authorities worry that unusual weather patterns caused by the phenomenon would exacerbate the country's own severe drought with below-average rainfall and above-average temperatures.

"Stronger El Niños interrupt tropical rainfalls. That rain fall shifts and Indonesia and Austrailia become drier than average," explained Halpert. "They’re not looking forward to El Niño shutting the tap off."

See How California Is Using Its Diminishing Water Resources

The Los Angeles Aqueduct Cascades are seen in Sylmar
The Los Angeles Aqueduct Cascades, which bring water 223 miles from the Owens River in the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains, and 137 miles from the Haiwee Reservoir, are a major source of water for Los Angeles. Seen here in Sylmar, Calif. on May 4, 2015.Lucy Nicholson—Reuters
The Los Angeles Aqueduct Cascades are seen in Sylmar
The Los Angeles Aqueduct Cascades are seen in Sylmar
A creek is seen in Northridge
A tractor ploughs a field next to a canal in Los Banos
A worker walks through farm fields in Los Banos
A canal runs through farm fields in Los Banos
"In the Central Valley, where most agricultural water use occurs, the failure to manage groundwater sustainably limits its availability as a drought reserve. The increase in perennial crops—which need to be watered every year—has made the region even more vulnerable," the Public Policy Institute of California states.
Water pours into a canal in Los Banos
Livestock products, including meat, dairy and eggs, account for more than a quarter of California's agricultural sector, a $12.5 billion industry, according to the USDA. Cattle are among the most water-hungry livestock, consuming an average of106 gallons per pound of beef. Cattle are seen at Harris Ranch in Coalinga, Calif. on May 5, 2015.
A wheat field is seen in Los Banos
A water protest sign is seen in Los Banos
The Los Angeles Aqueduct Cascades, which bring water 223 miles from the Owens River in the eastern Sierra Nevada mountai
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Lucy Nicholson—Reuters
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