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El Niño still likely but may be weaker, scientists say

Sea surface temperature in the equatorial Pacific Ocean on March 6. El Niño is characterized by unusually warm temperatures and La Niña by unusually cool temperatures in the equatorial Pacific.
NOAA
This file photo shows sea surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. El Niño is characterized by unusually warm temperatures and La Niña by unusually cool temperatures in the equatorial Pacific.

The odds of seeing wetter El Niño weather in the fall are looking good, which may be taken as good news for drought-stricken California  — but there's a caveat.

In a statement released Thursday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said there is now an 80 percent chance the northern hemisphere will see El Niño conditions by the fall and winter.

RELATED: El Niño is likely, but scientists say it could be a weak one

However, predictions about its strength have dipped slightly. Forecasters now slightly favor an El Niño of just moderate strength, but it could be weaker or stronger due to uncertainties in the model, NOAA says.

"The question now is what flavor of El Niño we're going to get," Bill Patzert, a research scientist and oceanographer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, told the San Jose Mercury News. "I've got my money on this being El Wimpo."

Scientists can predict El Niño conditions in part by studying the surface temperature of the ocean. Warmer water means El Niño is more likely, and in California that often means wetter winters. But, as we've reported before, predicting weather is always a bit like reading a crystal ball.