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Did Seattle steal Southern California's El Niño rains?

A commuter holds her umbrella while waiting for a bus in Rainier Square on 4th Avenue during evening rush hour January 10, 2006 in Seattle, Washington.
Robert Sumner/Getty Images
A commuter holds her umbrella while waiting for a bus in Rainier Square on 4th Avenue during evening rush hour January 10, 2006 in Seattle, Washington.

Dust off those umbrellas! A storm system is expected to bring much needed rain to Southern California this weekend.

It's a welcome change from a winter that's been mostly dry despite predictions that El Niño would douse the region with a “conveyor belt of storms.”

Last fall, there was so much hype around the weather pattern that Kimberly Moore, with Sherman Oaks-based Rain Gutters Pro, recalled her company getting more than 400 calls a day from panicked homeowners preparing for the onslaught of rain.

"They would say, ‘oh, are you still accepting estimates? I can’t find anyone,' " she said.

Instead, through February in L.A., rain totals were about four and a half inches below average. However, El Niño hasn't been a total dud everywhere.

Waters off the coast of Peru are still warmer than usual and altering weather patterns around the world. Normally wet places like Indonesia and New Guinea are experiencing dry spells, and other areas are getting drenched with extraordinary amounts of rain... like Seattle.

"It’s been the wettest winter on record in about 125 years of record keeping," said KUOW environment reporter Ashley Ahearn. 

The Seattle area has gotten more than 25 inches of rain since Dec. 1 — more than 10 inches above average.

Residents there are no strangers to gray, soggy winters, but Ahearn said even the locals say this winter is extreme in its unrelenting gloom.

"You walk the dog in the rain, you wake up in the rain, you go to work in the rain, you come home in the rain," she said. "No one from California should ever move here."

Fair enough, but this is the exact opposite of what almost every forecast predicted. Southern California was supposed to see plenty of rain while the Pacific Northwest would be on the dry side for once.

How did Seattle end up stealing our El Niño?

"Channeling Desi Arnaz, there’s some ‘splaining to do!" joked Nick Bond, Washington's state climatologist and a research meteorologist with the University of Washington.

Bond, like almost every other climate watcher, didn’t expect this outcome, but he said you can't guarantee an El Niño will turn out a certain way.

Instead, he said, you should think of  El Niños as stacking a deck in favor of a certain outcome – winters are typically wet in the Southwest and dry further north.

"But it’s still the deal of the cards," he said. "There’s a certain randomness to it."

Those cards ended up creating a persistent weather pattern that diverted storms from Southern California and sent them a little over a thousand miles north to Washington.

Kelly Redmond, a climatologist with the Western Regional Climate Center, said one reason for the shift may be related to changes in ocean temperatures that occurred since the last major El Niños in 1982-83 and 1997-98.

"Since that time, the Indian Ocean and the far Western Pacific has been slowly warming up," Redmond said.

Meanwhile, the Eastern Pacific – the area off the West Coast of the United States, stayed pretty much the same. It’s not a huge difference in temperature, just a few degrees,  but that can change where the jet stream delivers winter storms.

Also, the lingering effects of a patch of warm water in the Gulf of Alaska, nicknamed the blob, might also play a role. That's because this warm water adds extra humidity to the air just off the coast.

"As storms are about to strike the West Coast, they go over a patch of this warm water, and they could pick up a little extra shot of humidity as they are coming in," Redmond said.

That would super-charge a rainstorm, and might be why Seattle is getting super-drenched.

Other theories behind this unexpected El Niño weather involve increasing heat in the Arctic or the amount of time it took for the pattern to develop. No doubt, scientists will write many a paper on this topic.

Whatever the reason, things are going to stay wet and rainy in Seattle for the foreseeable future.

In L.A., a February of heat and clear skies will give way to rain this weekend and possibly next. 

The better news is in Northern California, home to the all important Sierra snowpack. Predictions there show rain and snow for 10 of the next 14 days.