El Niño Is About to Bring Bad News for Drought-Stricken Northwest This Winter

California Wildfires to get Worse with Drought
A firefighter sets a backfire while battling a fire near Hyampom, California, June 13, 2015. Drought conditions in Northern California are set to get worse this winter, according to NOAA's latest forecast. Noah Berger/Reuters

Updated | Federal weather forecasters released their winter outlook Thursday, and it doesn't look good for drought-stricken northern California, Oregon and Washington state. A strong El Niño this winter is predicted to intensify the Western drought through at least January, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced.

NOAA temp outlook 2016
NOAA released its predictions for the upcoming winter (December through February) on Thursday. According to this map, the Northwestern U.S. has a 60 percent or greater chance of experiencing higher-than-average temperatures during these months. NOAA

Earlier this week, NASA released a new image of this year's El Niño. The band of hot water stretching across the Pacific Ocean had strengthened to heat levels not seen since a particularly strong El Niño in 1997. The agency hinted that this El Niño may even surpass 1997's.

el nino 2015
In this graphic from NASA, the band of red indicates the warm strip of water called El Niño. The shades of red indicate where the ocean stood higher than the normal sea level (called "sea surface heigh anomaly"). Warmer water expands, filling more volume and raising the surface height of the sea. Shades of blue show where sea level and temperatures were lower than average (because cooler water contracts). Normal sea-level conditions are shown in white. NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

"Whether El Niño gets slightly stronger or a little weaker is not statistically significant now. This baby is too big to fail," said Bill Patzert, a climatologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a press release. "Over North America, this winter will definitely not be normal. However, the climatic events of the past decade make 'normal' difficult to define."

Now, NOAA says the force of El Niño will bring particularly bad news to the Pacific Northwest.

NOAA precipitation outlook 2016
NOAA predicts that in December, January, and February, much of the southern U.S. will see wetter-than-average weather, from central and southern California, across Texas, to Florida, and up the East Coast to southern New England. Southeastern Alaska will also see more precipitation than average. But Hawaii will likely get hit by drier-than-average conditions, as will central and western Alaska, parts of the Pacific Northwest and northern Rockies, and the states near the Great Lakes and the Ohio Valley, according to the agency. NOAA

To make matters worse, drought conditions may begin to appear in states in the Great Lakes region and northern Plains. Hawaii may also be in for a particularly parched winter; a "dry signal" associated with El Niño years "favors drought development" across the Hawaiian islands, according to the latest federal drought forecast.

Drought prediction for winter 2015-2016
Adam Allgood/NOAA/NWS/NCEP/Climate Prediction Center

Central and Southern California, meanwhile, will likely see the more benevolent side of El Niño, in the form of "enhancement of the early wet season," making for a slightly wetter winter. This means their drought will "remain but improve," according to NOAA. But they shouldn't get too excited.

"While it is good news that drought improvement is predicted for California, one season of above-average rain and snow is unlikely to remove four years of drought," Mike Halpert, the deputy director of NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, said in a statement Thursday. "California would need close to twice its normal rainfall to get out of drought and that's unlikely."

Most of the South and Northeast U.S., meanwhile, has a wetter, warmer-than-average winter to look forward to.

Update: A caption in this article was updated to reflect that NOAA predicts the Northwest has a 60 percent or greater probability of experiencing higher-than-average temperatures this winter.