In a paper published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers said they've developed a computer model that enables them to make such a prediction about one year in advance, rather than the 5 to 6 months that is common for spotting an El Nino, a natural periodic climate change that can strengthen Pacific storms.
In an El Nino, westbound winds in the Pacific slacken at and near the equator, allowing unusually warm water to flow east where it triggers atmospheric changes that can increase the strength and frequency of the winter storms that flow into Southern California, they said.
The researchers acknowledged it will always be difficult to come up with a completely accurate forecast of an El Nino.
"We are aware of the reputational risks associated with our announcement, yet formulating falsifiable hypotheses is at the heart of the scientific method," the science team said in the PNAS paper. "Should our alarm turn out to be correct, however, this would be a major step toward better forecasting -- and eventually understanding -- of the [El Nino] dynamics."
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