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Drought

Forecasters warn this winter's El Nino could be historically strong

The current El Nino, nicknamed Bruce Lee, is already the second strongest on record for this time of year and could be one of the most potent weather changers of the past 65 years, federal meteorologists say.

But California and other drought struck areas better not count on El Nino rescuing them like in a Bruce Lee action movie, experts say.

"A big El Nino guarantees nothing," said Mike Halper, deputy director of the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center. "At this point there's no cause for rejoicing that El Nino is here to save the day."

Every few years, the winds shift and the water in the Pacific Ocean gets warmer than usual. The resulting El Nino (ehl NEEN'-yoh) changes weather worldwide, mostly affecting the United States in winter.

In addition to California, El Nino often brings heavy winter rain to much of the southern and eastern U.S.

It's also likely to make the northern winters warmer and southeastern U.S. winters a bit cooler, but not much, Halpert said. The middle of the U.S. usually doesn't get too much of an El Nino effect, he said.

California's state climatologist Michael Anderson noted that only half the time when there have been big El Ninos has there been meaningfully heavy rains. The state would need 1½ times its normal rainfall to get out of this extended drought and that's unlikely, Halpert said Thursday.

Still, this El Nino is shaping up to be up there with the record-setters, because of incredible warmth in the key part of the Pacific in the last three months, Halpert said. He said the current El Nino likely will rival ones in 1997-1998, 1982-83 and 1972-73.

NASA oceanographer Bill Patzert said satellite measurements show this El Nino to be currently more powerful than 1997-98, which often is thought of as the king. But that one started weaker and finished stronger, he said.

This El Nino is so strong a NOAA blog unofficially named it the "Bruce Lee" of El Ninos after the late movie action hero. The California-based Patzert, who points out that mudslides and other mayhem happens, compares it to Godzilla.

Economic studies favor the hero theme, showing that El Ninos tend to benefit the United States. Droughts and Atlantic hurricanes are reduced. California mudslides notwithstanding, the U.S. economy benefited by nearly $22 billion from that 1997-98 El Nino, according to a study.

El Nino does tend to cause problems elsewhere in the world. And while El Nino often puts a big damper on the Atlantic hurricane season, that means more storms in the Pacific, such as Hawaii, Halpert said. So far this year, tropical cyclone activity in the Pacific is far higher than normal.