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California's Wet El Nino Forecast Is Bleak News For Thirsty Hawaiian Islands

(CBS SF) -- The strong El Nino that forecasters say could dump drenching rain on parched California is grim news for Hawaiian islands struggling to recover from a seven-year drought.

The National Weather Service said Hawaii is likely to go into drought this winter if the warming of equatorial waters in the eastern Pacific, known as El Nino, pushes the subtropical jet stream away from Hawaii and up north toward the southern half of the United States.

While strong El Nino events are linked to a deluge of rainfall in places like California, it's responsible for a devastating droughts and wildfires in other parts of the world like Hawaii.

"The chance of drought goes up, the stronger the El Nino is," Kevin Kodama, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service office in Honolulu told the Star Advertiser. "The expectation is that there will be pretty significant drought."

Hawaii is still recovering from a drought that lasted from 2008 to the beginning of 2014.

According to latest drought monitor analysis, 65 percent of Hawaii is abnormally dry or worse with the worst conditions affecting Maui and Kauai.

hawaii drought
U.S. Drought Monitor for Hawaii (The National Drought Mitigation Center)

Dry land could start affecting the state's lucrative agricultural industry including pineapples, coffee and macadamia nuts in the next month or two if rain doesn't come.

For the last month, climate experts have pointed toward a strong El Nino this year with waters warming up to levels we haven't seen since the powerful El Nino of 1997-1998.

In California, it rained 27 inches in January and February alone.  Axel Timmermann, oceanography professor and El Nino expert, said this one could be even stronger.

"The fetch of this warm water is enormous, much larger than July 1997," he said.

Even though most indicators point to a strong El Nino, it's important to remember this is just an outlook, but for the first time in five years it appears the West Coast is headed toward a wetter-than-normal winter as Hawaii plunges into a deeper dry spell.

Nicole Jones is a digital producer for CBS San Francisco. Follow her musings @nicjonestweets

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