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El Niño will be strongest in 65 years, but won't be enough to rescue drought-stricken West

FILE - In this June 25, 1998 file photo, a Caltrans bulldozer terraces a sliding hillside below the condemned home above Pacific Coast Highway near Las Flores Canyon Road in Malibu, Calif. The home and at least one other at the top of the slide was scheduled for demolition. Federal meteorologists said Thursday that the current El Nino is already the second strongest on record for this time of year and could go down as one of the most potent weather changers of the past 65 years. The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration recorded unusual warmth in the Pacific Ocean the last three months. El Nino is a heating of the equatorial Pacific that changes weather worldwide, mostly affecting the United States in winter.  (AP Photo/Reed Saxon, File)

FILE - In this June 25, 1998 file photo, a Caltrans bulldozer terraces a sliding hillside below the condemned home above Pacific Coast Highway near Las Flores Canyon Road in Malibu, Calif. The home and at least one other at the top of the slide was scheduled for demolition. Federal meteorologists said Thursday that the current El Nino is already the second strongest on record for this time of year and could go down as one of the most potent weather changers of the past 65 years. The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration recorded unusual warmth in the Pacific Ocean the last three months. El Nino is a heating of the equatorial Pacific that changes weather worldwide, mostly affecting the United States in winter. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon, File)

The current El Niño, 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 Niño rescuing them like in a Bruce Lee action movie, experts say.

"A big El Niño guarantees nothing," said Mike Halpert, deputy director of the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center. "At this point there's no cause for rejoicing that El Niño 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 Niño changes weather worldwide, mostly affecting the United States in winter.

In addition to California, El Niño 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 Niño effect, he said.

California's state climatologist Michael Anderson noted that only half the time when there have been big El Niños 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 Niño 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 Niño likely will rival ones in 1997-1998, 1982-83 and 1972-73.

NASA oceanographer Bill Patzert said satellite measurements show this El Niño 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 Niño is so strong a NOAA blog unofficially named it the "Bruce Lee" of El Niños 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 Niños 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 Niño, according to a study.

El Niño does tend to cause problems elsewhere in the world. And while El Niño 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.

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