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El Nino Could Be The Most Powerful On Record, Scientists Say

By Rong-Gong Lin II and Rosanna Xia, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

LOS ANGELES — A key location of the Pacific Ocean is now hotter than recorded in at least 25 years, surpassing the temperatures during the record 1997 El Nino.

Some scientists say the readings show that this year’s El Nino could be among the most powerful on record — and even topple the 1997 El Nino from its pedestal.

“This thing is still growing and it’s definitely warmer than it was in 1997,” said Bill Patzert, climatologist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge. As far as the temperature readings go, “it’s now bypassed the previous champ of the modern satellite era — the 1997 El Nino has just been toppled by 2015.”

Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at Stanford University, called the temperature reading significant. It is the highest such weekly temperature above the average in 25 years of modern record keeping in this key region of the Pacific Ocean west of Peru.

“This is a very impressive number,” Swain said, adding that data suggest that this El Nino is still warming up. “It does look like it’s possible that there’s still additional warming” to come.

“We’re definitely in the top tier of El Nino events,” Swain said.

Temperatures in this key area of the Pacific Ocean rose to 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit above average for the week of Nov. 11. That exceeds the highest comparable reading for the most powerful El Nino on record, when temperatures rose 5 degrees Fahrenheit above the average the week of Thanksgiving in 1997.

The 5.4 degree Fahrenheit recording above the average temperature is the highest such number since 1990 in this area of the Pacific Ocean, according to the National Weather Service.

El Nino is a weather phenomenon involving a section of the Pacific Ocean west of Peru that warms up, causing alterations in the atmosphere that can cause dramatic changes in weather patterns globally.

For the United States, El Nino can shift the winter track of storms that normally keeps the jungles of southern Mexico and Central America wet and moves them over California and the southern United States. The northern United States, like the Midwest and Northeast, typically see milder winters during El Nino.

Chart showing El Nino rainfall in Los Angeles Times. Contributed by the Los Angeles times

Chart showing El Nino rainfall in Los Angeles Times. Contributed by the Los Angeles times

The National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center has already forecast a higher chance of a wet winter for almost all of California and the southern United States.

But the center’s deputy director, Mike Halpert, cautioned against reading too much into the record-breaking weekly temperature data.

El Nino has so far been underperforming in other respects involving changes in the atmosphere important to the winter climate forecast for California, he said.

One example: tropical rainfall has not extended from the International Date Line and eastward, approaching South America, as it did by this time in 1997.

“In 1997, that pattern has largely established itself,” Halpert said, but that pattern so far is “significantly weaker” than it was back then.

Still, Halpert said, “it’s not too late for things to develop.”

Patzert, the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory climatologist, said the increase in ocean temperatures west of Peru was a result of a dramatic weakening of the normal east-to-west trade winds in the Pacific Ocean that were observed in October around the International Date Line.

That allowed the warm, tropical ocean waters in the western Pacific Ocean to surge to the Americas, leading to this increase in ocean temperatures observed last week.

The 1997 El Nino has been considered the strongest such event since the 1950s. The modern era of El Nino tracking came after the 1982-83 event, which came as a surprise and is considered the second strongest on record.

The 1997 El Nino was considered so strong and that scientists have been impressed that this El Nino could top that event.

Patzert likened it to the shocking defeat of the previously unbeaten Ultimate Fighting Championship champion Ronda Rousey last weekend by Holly Holm. Or, he added, like the dethroning of a grand champion in sumo wrestling.

This El Nino “just flipped the 1997-98 El Nino out of the ring,” Patzert said.

El Nino is already being blamed for drought and wildfires in Indonesia, and the United Nations is warning about millions at risk from hunger in eastern and southern Africa and Central America from drought.

El Nino is believed to have played a role in the storms this spring that caused floods and ended droughts in Colorado, Texas and Oklahoma. It’s also a factor in the fewer number of hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean while there has been more of them in the eastern Pacific.

graphic of potential rain for el nino

Weather forecast for El Nino rainfall on the West Coast. Contributed by the Los Angeles Times

The unusually active hurricane season has already had impacts on California. Remnants of a summertime hurricane caused so much rain to pour down in Riverside County that an Interstate 10 bridge collapsed. It dumped so much hail near Lake Tahoe that snowplows were called to clear Interstate 80. Last month, an eastern Pacific hurricane, Patricia, became the strongest such cyclone recorded in the Western Hemisphere before it slammed into Mexico.

“It’s not as if we’re waiting for El Nino to actually manifest itself — it has in many ways already,” Patzert said. “There is no doubt: It’s coming.”

The big question is whether the above-average ocean temperatures will cause the mountains of Northern California — a critical source for the state’s largest reservoirs — to get rain instead of snow. Too much rain in those mountains would not be good for the state; snow is better because it can melt slowly in the spring and summer, gradually refilling reservoirs at a gentle pace. But precipitation coming down as rain there can force dam managers to flush out water to sea to keep reservoirs from overflowing dams.

“The really high elevations in the Sierra Nevada will do well,” Swain said, but it’s unknown whether the more important mid-level elevations will get rain or snow.

Scientists say they expect El Nino rains to be concentrated in the months of January, February and March.

“At some point, during December, we’ll transition to a much more active pattern” for storms, Swain said. “And by the end of December, and certainly by January, February and March, we’ll see above average precipitation, potentially well-above average.”

“El Nino is going to be a dominant factor this winter,” Swain said.

El Nino is also expected to provide once-in-a-generation waves on beaches not seen since the 1997-98 event, Patzert said, affecting the entire west coast of North America, “from British Columbia all the way down to Costa Rica.”

“The best surfing waves often precede the storms,” Patzert said. “If you have a great day of surfing _ Malibu or Mavericks or someplace _ during an El Nino, then in the next day or two you can expect a big storm.”

Photo: A spot in the Pacific Ocean is hitting record water temperatures, which is worrying climate scientists. Dave/Flickr

LA, On Cusp Of Controversial Quake Retrofit, May Want To Follow SF’s Blueprint

By Rong-Gong Lin II and Rosanna Xia, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

SAN FRANCISCO — The rental market here was already under siege when city officials began an ambitious earthquake retrofitting project whose costs will largely be passed on to renters.

Fueled by the city’s tech boom, rents have soared, with average one-bedroom units going for $3,500 a month. Low-income tenants are being evicted as a large number of apartments are being taken off the long-term rental market to be turned into condos or leased to users of Airbnb and other short-stay leasing services.

But the anger over the situation hasn’t extended to the earthquake-retrofitting law, even though the $60,000- to $130,000-per-building price tag will be largely paid for through rent increases over the next two decades.

Renter advocates say the costs are an added burden. But they acknowledge that in return, tenants will get something essential — protection from a type of building that has collapsed and killed residents in California’s last two major earthquakes.

“We are in the middle of an earthquake zone, and tenants deserve the certainty of safety when a natural disaster hits,” said Sara Shortt, executive director of the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco.

The reaction in San Francisco is instructive as a Los Angeles City Council committee Wednesday considers an even more ambitious retrofit law.

Los Angeles’ law would require as many as 13,500 quake-vulnerable wood-frame apartments to be strengthened, compared to 5,000 in San Francisco.

The law proposed by Mayor Eric Garcetti would also mandate retrofits of as many as 1,500 brittle concrete buildings, a problem San Francisco has not yet addressed.

If passed, Los Angeles’ law would be the most sweeping seismic safety measure passed in California history.

The cost to renters has emerged as a big political issue. While not as bad as San Francisco, Los Angeles is one of the most unaffordable cities in the nation for tenants, where the average one-bedroom rent is nearly $2,100, according to Real Answers, a rental research business.

Existing law allows Los Angeles to follow San Francisco’s lead and allow owners to pass on all costs of mandatory earthquake retrofits to tenants through a rent increase of as much as $75 a month.

But after much study, Los Angeles housing officials proposed a 50-50 split — owners and renters would each pay half the costs, with a rent increase capped at $38 per month. (By contrast, rents in San Francisco can go up 10 percent every year until the tenant is paying the full cost.)

City officials are also looking for other ways to help. Garcetti supports state legislation that would allow owners to apply for a tax break equal to 30 percent of the retrofit costs. The bill, AB 428, passed the state Legislature in September but needs Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature. Owners have also sought more financial aid, like a reduction in property taxes and expensive building-permit fees.

Renter advocates in L.A. remain concerned about how much tenants will have to pay, and said they will fight the retrofitting law if the financial arrangements aren’t fair.

“While we do support making these units safe, it can’t be on the backs of those least able to pay,” said Larry Gross, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival.

Costs have long been the big barrier to requiring owners to act. But over time, mandatory retrofitting has taken hold in a few cities.

The Silicon Valley suburb of Fremont was one of the first cities in California to make a big push in retrofitting wood-frame apartments. Sixteen years later, there’s only one building left to upgrade, said Jeff Schwob, the city’s community development director.

Berkeley began slapping more than 320 quake-vulnerable buildings with warning signs in 2005, and instructed owners to tell tenants that their apartments could pose “a severe threat to life safety.”

More than 100 were retrofitted voluntarily, and Berkeley then ordered the remaining buildings to be retrofitted.

“So much of Berkeley is controversial, but this one kind of really went through without a whole lot of opposition,” said Eric Angstadt, the city’s planning and development department director. “I think everybody generally thinks it’s a good idea to have seismic retrofits for these types of buildings.”

The threat of wooden apartment buildings has been known for years; collapses killed at least three people in San Francisco during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and 16 people in an apartment building in the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

Backers of retrofitting told tenants that rent increases are a small price to pay. A major quake in San Francisco, they said, would destroy many apartments that would be replaced by new dwellings not covered under rent control.

For owners, retrofits will protect against costly lawsuits if a collapsed building injures or kills people, and keep rent checks flowing after a quake strikes.

“It’s work that needs to be done,” said Janan New, executive director of the San Francisco Apartment Association.

Some owners have quickly moved to begin retrofits. Since San Francisco passed a mandatory retrofit law in 2013, owners of more than 270 buildings have finished retrofits for 5,058 vulnerable structures across the city, years ahead of deadlines to complete construction.

Owners of more than 660 other buildings have applied for or received building permits for retrofit construction.

So far, most building owners have complied with the mandatory retrofit deadlines. Owners who miss deadlines have had provocative signs posted on their buildings by city officials that say “Earthquake warning!” in large red letters, set over an image of a collapsing building.

Last year, more than 400 buildings were marked with the warning signs after missing a deadline to turn in a retrofit screening form. As of last week, only three remain.

“It was amazing. It worked really fast,” said Patrick Otellini, who heads San Francisco’s earthquake safety program. These signs “actually said something to tenants that live in these buildings.”

Neither owners nor tenants were thrilled initially at the prospect of retrofits. After opposition, city officials made it easier for low-income residents to request an exemption from the retrofit rent hike.

Seismic retrofits are now seen as a regular cost of business. “As a landlord … you have a responsibility to make sure you’re housing people in a safe place,” Otellini said.

Retrofitting a building was considered optional and too costly in the past, but now, “it’s almost becoming politically incorrect to talk about earthquake safety in that way,” Otellini said.

Some owners who have completed retrofits have already received approval for rent hikes. In one nine-unit building in the Sunset District, the San Francisco Rent Board approved a monthly rent increase of about $62 to cover the expenses of a $99,000 retrofit and interest.

If the Los Angeles housing committee passes the legislation Wednesday, it could be considered by the full City Council as early as Friday.

Some Los Angeles renter and owner groups have objections to the legislation, including a concern that four years is too little time to get wooden apartments retrofitted.

The mayor said there should be no delays.

“Every month we wait is a month that the Big One could hit,” Garcetti said. “And we would look back and say, if we had just done this a little more swiftly, lives and properties would’ve been saved.”

Photo: Apartment buildings in L.A., like this high-rise off Wilshire Boulevard, might be subject to stringent retrofitting rules to make it safer in case of earthquakes. InSapphoWeTrust/Flickr