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Climate change is affecting oceans, but South Coast researcher says impacts on El Ninos unknown

Sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern Pacific are cooler than average (the blue areas). Scientists say as of July, the West Coast is seeing a 60% chance of a La Nina pattern, which could mean another year of below average rainfall.

UC Santa Barbara researcher gets major federal grant to fund ongoing study of the question.

El Nino and La Nina patterns can have huge impacts on our weather in the Tri-Counties, from torrential rain to drought conditions.

While climatologists are learning how to predict them, there’s another wrinkle in the puzzle, in the form of how climate change fits into the equation.

El Ninos can amplify our rainfall, while La Ninas can mean below average rainfall, and drought conditions. We were impacted by a La Nina pattern last rainfall season, and it looks like that could happen again.

But, how is climate change affecting El Ninos and La Ninas? We don’t know, but a UC Santa Barbara researcher is doing groundbreaking research to try to answer that question.

"We expect that the kinds of changes we are going to see in the future are going to be important for the physics of how El Nino and La Nina operate, but we just don't know all of the details yet," said Sam Stevenson, who's an Associate Professor in UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management.

She says there’s no question climate change is affecting El Ninos and La Ninas, but the fact is we don’t know how much.

"We don't have a good sense of what the net effect is going to be on say amplifying El Nino, or dampening it in the future."

Stevenson is focusing on studying climate change impacts on El Ninos, but she says the same concepts apply to its counterpart, La Ninas.

The researcher has just received a National Science Foundation CAREER award to investigate how climate change is affecting El Ninos. The $880,000 grant will fund five years of her research.

Stevenson says the research uses lots of computer modeling. The researcher admits they are still learning, and there are lots of variables open to interpretation. Some models say El Ninos could strengthen, and some say they won’t.

While Stevenson is exploring the deeper issues of how climate change is affecting global weather patterns, you have to ask the much more immediate question: are we in for another season of La Nina, and continued drought conditions?

"The forecasts are suggesting we might be headed into another La Nina winter," said Stevenson. "But, the forecasts for this time of year are pretty uncertain, so we're going to see how that plays out."

The hope is that this research is going to help is better predict the characteristics of El Ninos, and La Ninas, and ultimately get a better handle on what’s headed our way weather-wise.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.