NASA climate research study

Black and gold graphic bar
  January 28, 2004

Margie Yu
Public Affairs Specialist 
(323) 343-3047



Cal State L.A. 
Office of Public Affairs 
(323) 343-3050 
Fax: (323) 343-6405

For immediate release:
Pacific Dictates Droughts and Drenching

Study by Cal State L.A. Professor, Grad Student and JPL Researcher Predicts
Drier and Cooler Temperatures in Southern California

Los Angeles -- The cooler and drier conditions in Southern California over the last few years appear to be a direct result of a long-term ocean pattern known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, according to research presented recently at the 2004 meeting of the American Meteorological Society.

The study by Steve LaDochy, associate professor of geography at California State University, Los Angeles; Bill Patzert, research oceanographer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California; and Jeff Brown, graduate student in geography at Cal State L.A., suggests Pacific oceanic and atmospheric measurements can be used to forecast seasonal West Coast temperatures and precipitation up to a year in advance, from Seattle to San Diego.

An important climate controller, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation is a basin-wide oceanic pattern similar to El Niño and La Niña but much larger. The pattern lasts many decades rather than just a few months like El Niño and La Niña. The climatic fingerprints of the pattern are most visible in the North Pacific and North America, with secondary influences coming from the tropics. The long-term nature of the pattern makes it useful for forecasting, as its effects persist for so long.

Since mid-1992, NASA has been able to provide space-based, synoptic views of the entire Pacific Ocean’s shifts in heat content with the Topex/Poseidon mission and its follow-up mission, Jason (which began in 2001). Before these satellites were available, monitoring oceanic climate signals in near-real time was virtually impossible.

The remarkable data and images can tag and monitor the shifts in short-term climate events, like El Niño and La Niña, and long-term events such as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. These data provide a 13-year continuous, complete time-series containing two major El Niños and two La Niñas, and have made it possible to detect a major phase shift of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. Patzert and LaDochy show these data, combined with longer-term studies of land-based data, provide a powerful set of forecasting tools.

The pattern shifted to a negative, cool phase, leading to wetter conditions in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, and drier than normal conditions in Central and Southern California this decade. Since the last El Niño in 1997-1998, the Los Angeles area has had only 79 percent of its normal rainfall, Patzert said. Lake Mead, the great fresh-water reservoir in southeast Nevada, is at less than 50 percent of normal capacity. Also, huge West Coast fires over the past few years have been greatly exacerbated by drought induced by the pattern, Patzert added.

“These shifts in the pattern are long-term tendencies, which actually have a bigger economic impact than El Niño,” said Patzert. “People talk about floods from El Niño, but what really has a harsh and costly impact is a five-year drought.”

“A full cycle of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (cool to warm and back to cool) runs about 50 years,” said LaDochy. “Over the next several years there is going to be a tendency toward dry and cooler temperatures in the southern U.S. West Coast. It is very difficult to forecast day-to-day here on the West Coast, but we can say with some confidence that over the next five years, we’d better start saving water.”

The researchers used over 50 years of U.S. climatic information, and Pacific atmospheric and oceanic data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Prediction. By comparing data sets, they saw strong correlations between Pacific climate patterns, temperatures and precipitation trends on the West Coast. They then were able to develop “hindcasts” to explain temperature and precipitation variability for West Coast regions. These decadal cycles also will be useful for explaining future regional climate variability.

Steve LaDochy, associate professor of geography at Cal State L.A., received his Ph.D. from the University of Manitoba. LaDochy is a climatologist and meteorologist, with special interests in thunderstorm phenomena and synoptic climatology. He also conducts research in air pollution, weather forecasting, lightning and urban climates.

For images about the research on the Internet, visit the NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) Web site at: (JPL is managed for NASA by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.) For further details on the research, contact Alan Buis, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA, (818) 354-0474; Elvia H. Thompson, NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC, (202) 358-1696; or Krishna Ramanujan, Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD, (607) 273-2561.

WORKING FOR CALIFORNIA – California State University, Los Angeles: A comprehensive university at the heart of a major metropolitan city. The 175-acre hilltop campus is located five miles east of Los Angeles’ civic and cultural center. Since 1947, Cal State L.A. has been a leader in providing quality higher education. Today, the campus comprises a faculty of internationally recognized scholars and artists, and more than 21,000 students with a wide variety of interests, ages and backgrounds that reflect the city’s dynamic mix of populations. Cal State L.A. is one of 23 campuses in the CSU system.

# # #