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When It Comes to a Record, L.A. Rain Falls a Drop Short

Times Staff Writer

They say Los Angeles likes a winner. But when it comes to rain, the city is going to have to settle for a close second.

The epic 2004-05 rain season comes to an end at midnight tonight, and downtown Los Angeles missed the all-time record by a measly 0.93 of an inch.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Jul. 01, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday July 01, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Rainfall -- An article in Thursday’s Section A about the 2004-2005 rain season incorrectly said one historian asserted that the wettest season in Los Angeles history was 1860-1861, before official precipitation records were kept. The historian said the wettest season was 1861-1862.

“Second place is for losers, and nobody wants to be a loser,” said Bill Patzert, a meteorologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge. “We had a wet fall, and we got drenched in the winter, but the rainfall in March, April, May and June was below normal.”

Indeed, it hardly feels these days as though Los Angeles had the second-wettest rain season on record.

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Temperatures in some parts of the Southland were expected to cross into the triple digits this week -- typical for the Fourth of July weekend. Hillsides that just a month ago were a brilliant green are rapidly turning yellow.

Despite the rain, many Western reservoirs that provide water to Southern California remain below maximum levels. Much of the West remains in a prolonged drought, and the brush fire season is off to a roaring start, with one blaze destroying six homes north of Palm Springs last week.

This rain season, which ran from July 1 to June 30, ends with 37.25 inches falling at the National Weather Service monitoring station at USC. The wettest season on record was 1883-84, when 38.18 inches fell in downtown Los Angeles.

But the rainfall was actually much greater in other cities in Southern California, especially in hillside communities.

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Pasadena had 56.06 inches of rain this season, almost 10 inches more than the previous record of 46.62 in 1982-83. Burbank had 44.64 inches, compared with the old record of 39.39 in 1977-78. Canoga Park, with 41.50, squeaked past its old record of 40.19 in 1997-98.

The rains claimed at least 17 lives in Southern California, including those of 10 people buried in a massive January mudslide in the Ventura County coastal community of La Conchita. Mudslides, flooding and erosion blocked more than 100 roads in Los Angeles County. Hundreds of homes were damaged.

Still, the close of the rain season -- and coming so close to breaking the all-time record -- brought some sadness to those whose business is the weather.

“I was kind of pulling for it,” said KABC-TV weatherman Dallas Raines. “It would have been fun to say, ‘Hey, we did it.’ ”

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Jim Ashby, a climatologist for the Western Regional Climate Center in Reno, was philosophical about coming in second.

“It would be neat to get the record, but sometimes it doesn’t happen, and that’s the way it is,” he said. “And second place in 100 years, that won’t look so bad.”

Experts are quick to point out that the record itself is somewhat relative.

The downtown Los Angeles rain gauge was moved from the Civic Center to USC in 1999, so it will never be known whether the slight geographic change in the gauge might have hurt this season’s chances, Patzert said.

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“Moving that station could have tipped the numbers one way or another,” he said.

One historian has even asserted that the wettest season in Los Angeles history wasn’t 1883-84 but 1860-61, before official precipitation records were kept but when newspaper reports talked of epic downpours.

Meteorologically, this was a very unusual season, following a pattern that occurred only once since they started keeping records in the summer of 1877, Patzert said.

And experts still aren’t sure exactly what caused this year’s extreme weather.

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Most wet winters in Los Angeles coincide with strong El Ninos -- cyclical, oceanic and meteorological phenomena triggered by changing surface water temperatures off the west coast of South America.

High-altitude jet stream winds tend to hang to the south during El Ninos, carrying with them warm, subtropical storms that move straight into Southern California from the central Pacific.

But weak El Nino conditions petered out last fall, and most meteorologists agree that they had little to do with the cool but torrential rains in December, January and February.

The flip side of the El Nino cycle is La Nina, when the jet stream stays north, carrying storms across the Pacific Northwest into the northern Great Plains, bypassing Southern California and keeping Los Angeles dry. There have been several La Nina seasons in recent years, but this wasn’t one of them either.

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“This season was what I call ‘La Nada,’ ” Patzert said. “El Nino and La Nina tend to give structure to climate, but La Nada is like a teenager, without structure. The jet stream was on steroids, with wild fluctuations north and south.”

Sometimes, he said, these fluctuations carried storms from the Gulf of Alaska down into Southern California. And sometimes the storms broke free of the flailing jet stream, straying on their own down the coast, picking up more moisture along the way, before moving inland across the Southland.

“Either way, we got a lot of rain,” Patzert said.

He said this pattern last occurred during the 1889-90 season, when 34.84 inches of rain fell on downtown Los Angeles, the third-wettest season on record. It rained a lot that season in October, December and January, much like this season.

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Although detailed meteorological records don’t reach back that far, scientists are able to infer a lot from other sources. Fishing records tell a good deal about changing ocean temperatures, and those records show that, like this season, 1889-90 had nothing to do with El Nino, Patzert said.

Just three years ago, only 4.42 inches of rain fell on the city, making the 2001-02 season the driest on record. Between the 1998-99 season and last year, Los Angeles averaged about 11.4 inches.

“For the past six years, this drought has been building slowly and steadily across the West,” Patzert said. “It takes more than one year to satisfy our tremendous thirst, and although it rained like hell in Southern California this winter, a lot of the Northwest stayed dry. We’re not out of this drought yet.”

Data released earlier this month by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed that although California was in pretty good shape, sizable areas of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming were still afflicted by severe to extreme drought.

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John Todd, an assistant chief with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, said the extra rain means extra foliage, but as that foliage dries out later in the year, it becomes extra fuel, both for this fall and for years to come. He said a lot of vegetation that died over the last six years of dry conditions remains.

Because of this, firefighters are bracing for a potentially dangerous season, noting that several previous seasons of heavy rain have been followed by destructive wildfires.

Although Los Angeles was left in second place at the end of the rain season, Patzert was proud to report that one record was shattered on the back porch of his home in Sierra Madre, where he keeps a rain gauge.

“I measured 75 inches,” he said. “It’s the record at my house. Of course, I’ve only been keeping records for two years.”

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Times staff writers Hector Becerra and Jessica Gresko contributed to this report.


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