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He’s right as rain on El Nino

Times Staff Writer

THE celebrity TV weatherman was pretty much invented in Los Angeles. They have names like Dallas Raines and Johnny Mountain, and before them, the avuncular man in the bow tie known to millions simply as Dr. George.

Steve Martin mocked this culture in his movie “L.A. Story,” in which he plays a weatherman who tapes his forecasts in advance because, well, L.A. has no weather.

But although the TV news provides the overnight lows and five-day forecasts, the job of understanding the weather and making the long-term predictions falls to the meteorologists and climatologists who toil behind the scenes.

Many work for the federal government and universities. They are generally a conservative bunch, quick with the caveat and the nuance -- knowing their forecasts can have huge and costly implications, including how farmers plant their crops and how government agencies calibrate water supplies.

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Then there is Bill Patzert.

Over the last two decades, the climatologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge has emerged as perhaps the leading expert on weather in Southern California. He was one of the scientists ahead of the curve on predicting the effects of a huge El Nino in 1998 and ever since has tilted with the windmills of meteorology convention.

Shortly after NASA ordered its scientists in 2004 not to comment on the global warming catastrophe movie “The Day After Tomorrow,” Patzert appeared on the CBS Evening News in a Hawaiian shirt.

“Anyone who thinks the human race does not have a powerful impact on the environment and climate,” Patzert said, “definitely has their head in the sand.”

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To some meteorologists, Patzert has become just like one of those TV weathermen -- quick with the flashy quote.

But the 65-year-old surfer has also gained a loyal following from those who say his forecasts for Southern California are simply the most accurate. Over the last five years, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Washington predicted three times that increasing sea surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific -- the phenomenon known as El Nino -- would result in wetter-than-normal winters in Southern California. Each time Patzert disagreed.

Much to the dismay of federal scientists, he started talking about “fictional El Ninos,” flaccid “El Wimpos” and disappointing “El No Shows.”

In July, NOAA predicted another global El Nino, expected to affect Southern California and the Southern states. The 2006-07 season, it said, would be warm and rainier than average.

Patzert’s forecast: Dry. Really dry. And he was willing to stake his reputation on it.

WHY are there such enormous disparities between forecasts?

One reason: When it comes to El Nino, NOAA tends to emphasize data from a network of buoys running across the equatorial Pacific from Asia to the Americas. They make measurements on the upper 500 meters in the ocean, where the major deviations in temperature take place. The weather consequences can be dramatic depending on the size of the temperature increase, the area of ocean involved and the duration of the phenomenon. For NOAA, an increase of about 1 degree Fahrenheit over three months in a defined area of the Pacific meets the threshold for El Nino.

Patzert, on the other hand, is an expert in analyzing satellite data.

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The satellites measure the elevation of the sea surface as a result of the expansion of water as temperatures increase in the upper 500 meters. The satellites are not as hyperfocused on El Nino and look beyond to other climate patterns.

One of those patterns is the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, a slow-moving variation of temperatures between the western and eastern sections of the Pacific. In 1998, the western Pacific was becoming warmer than the eastern Pacific, leading Patzert to conclude that in the long term, an “El Nino-repellent” pattern was forming that would favor drought in Southern California for many years.

The technologies each have strengths that complement each other, as well as blind spots, but perhaps the biggest wild card is how human beings interpret the data.

“There’s a competitive sense over who owns the big phenomenon, and who understands it,” said James Baker, who headed NOAA from 1993 to 2001.

Patzert has made Southern California his beat. On Wednesday, he and two other researchers released a NASA-JPL study showing that California’s temperature rose nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 50 years, largely because of urban growth.

His expertise in the region has won Patzert some loyal disciples, including Robert Krier, the San Diego Union-Tribune’s Weather Watch columnist.

“Patzert has been reliably closer to the actual total at the end of the season than [NOAA], our local National Weather Service guys, a local meteorology professor and the Scripps guy,” Krier said. “He was one of the few to go below normal on the rainfall prediction for this year. The others were convinced El Nino would dominate.”

Those who disagree with Patzert sometimes point out that he is not a meteorologist but an oceanographer. But Patzert said that as far as El Nino was concerned, that was no disadvantage.

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After all, El Nino is a child of the ocean.

And so is Patzert.

HIS father, Rudolph Patzert, was a commercial fisherman in Long Island, N.Y., and after World War II, captained a gunboat that carried 1,380 Jewish refugees from Europe to Palestine.

Even after the family moved to Gary, Ind., the younger Patzert enjoyed trips on Lake Michigan.

After graduating from Purdue University, Patzert studied oceanography at the University of Hawaii, where he discovered surfing and found a mentor in Klaus Wyrtki, one of the pioneers of El Nino research.

Wyrtki said he remembered Patzert enthusiastically scuba diving to anchor transmitters in shark-infested waters.

“He was always ready to do something and to go somewhere,” Wyrtki said.

In 1974, Patzert was a young scientist working under the direction of Wyrtki and other big-shot El Nino experts who predicted that an El Nino would arrive in the following year.

In the winter of 1975, Patzert was the chief scientist working for UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography aboard the Moana Wave, a research vessel, as it scoured the northern coast of South America to track El Nino.

That El Nino turned out to be a bust, and so did the forecast.

But Patzert continued to be obsessed with the weather pattern.

In 1983, he left Scripps and went to work for NASA under the promise of a new era of satellite oceanography. He worked in Washington, D.C., for three years before moving back to Southern California.

In 1998, a “monster El Nino” began to develop in the Pacific, and Patzert emerged as one of the most prominent scientists who explained it.

The scope of that El Nino played well to one of Patzert’s strengths -- his ability to have fun with words.

One day he drove by a Burger King, so the next time he talked about the coming El Nino, Patzert called it “a real whopper.” Then he called it “El Nino Grande,” a nod to a Taco Bell item. El Nino became “the real deal” based on a McDonald’s marketing campaign at the time.

But as January 1998 came to a close, and Southern California remained dry, some climatologists began to waver on El Nino, thinking it might be a bust.

That put Patzert on the defensive.

In late January, Robert Jones, then a columnist for The Times, visited Patzert at the JPL campus. Patzert stared at the sky and excitedly pointed out tropical clouds.

“He’s a desperate man, of course,” Jones wrote the next day.

Jones was sure Patzert would have egg on his face over El Nino, so he did not hesitate to accept the scientist’s $10 bet.

“Sure enough, it started raining, I think a week later,” Jones said recently with a laugh. In that February, more than 13 inches of rain poured down on L.A.

Jones made good on the bet, mailing Patzert a $10 bill, along with a note that read, “Bill, why prolong the agony? I capitulate.”

Patzert keeps a copy of the $10 bill and the note framed on his office bulletin board.

IT wasn’t just reporters who started to call on Patzert. He became a frequent speaker at schools, junior colleges, universities, rotary clubs and senior citizen groups.

Some scientists criticized him for talking to the media instead of waiting to publish his findings. They whispered about him become a talking head -- someone who liked the sound of his own voice.

But others came to respect the fact that he marched to his own drum -- something that was becoming increasingly rare in the button-down, highly politicized world of climate and weather forecasting.

“NOAA sees themselves as the official arbiters, so they’re always conservative about what they say,” Baker said. “There’s a little bit of an art to the whole process. It’s an inexact science.”

And nowhere is the science more inexact than when it comes to El Nino. In 2002, NOAA announced that El Nino was “baaack!” Patzert shrugged it off, saying it wasn’t much of an El Nino. Locally, the result was a kind of a draw. Southern California was wetter-than-average -- but only by an inch. Two years later, when NOAA forecast a weak El Nino, L.A. experienced record rainfall, but it was from the Arctic and not related to El Nino. (Patzert had predicted dry conditions.)

For Patzert, El Nino had become a convenient explanation for too many things going on in the world. Patzert wasn’t arguing that El Nino would have no effects, just that it was being overhyped.

In December, he projected that if El Nino was going to affect the U.S., it would most likely be in the Gulf Coast and Florida --which, in fact, turned out to have wetter weather than the other Southern states.

He quipped that El Nino was even being blamed for stupid things people did that turned out bad -- such as taking a trip down a roaring flood control channel on an inner tube.

“Don’t blame El Nino,” Patzert said. “That was El Nincompoop.”

This season, NOAA was back with an El Nino forecast.

As winter came, the government forecasters were looking like they might finally have it right.

The mild, spring-like temperatures that descended over much of the East Coast in the early winter -- giving rise to unseasonal daffodils in places like New York -- were attributed by some weather scientists, including some at NOAA, to El Nino, rather than to global warming or other climate patterns. El Nino had struck as predicted in Australia, where drought is the result.

But Patzert shook his head. To him, this was the season of “La Nada.” The nothing.

In early January, more than 1,000 weather experts from the U.S. and around the world attended the American Meteorological Society conference in San Antonio.

Scientist after scientist rose to present evidence that El Nino was coming.

Louis Uccellini, director of NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Prediction in Camp Springs, Md., declared: “I think we’re starting to see signs, signatures of El Nino.”

But Patzert repeatedly described El Nino as “El No Show,” to the clear irritation of Robert Livezey, the head of NOAA’s Climate Services Division.

“I don’t want to hear anything more about ‘No Show’ until the end of January or February,” Livezey said. “If we don’t see the impacts, then OK. Let’s make the noise. Let’s get the attention.” The conference ended with the debate over El Nino unresolved.

Then on Feb. 1, NOAA put out a news release. The agency said it had given up on El Nino having much of any impact in North America. As of today, L.A. has experienced 2.47 inches of rain for the rain year, making it the driest on record so far.

Patzert said he knew from experience that forecasting could be difficult and perilous, but so was gloating.

“There’s nothing people enjoy more than a bad forecast. Making fun of the weatherman is a classic. Believe me, I’ve been made fun of,” he said. “In the end, Mother Nature knows a hell of a lot more than any of us.”

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hector.becerra@latimes.com


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