Analysis of the case of 3 February 1998, using an extensive observational system in the California Bight during an El Niño winter, has revealed that surface sensible and latent heat fluxes within 150 km of the shore contributed substantially to the destabilization of air that subsequently produced strong convection and flooding along the coast. Aircraft, dropsonde, and satellite observations gathered offshore documented the sea surface temperatures (SSTs), surface fluxes, stratification, and frontal structures. These were used to extrapolate the effects of the fluxes on the warm-sector, boundary layer air ahead of a secondary cold front as this air moved toward the coast. The extrapolated structure was then validated in detail with nearshore aircraft, wind profiler, sounding, and buoy observations of the frontal convection along the coast, and the trajectory transformations were confirmed with a model simulation. The results show that the surface fluxes increased CAPE by about 26% such that the nearshore boundary layer values of 491 J kg−1 were near the upper end of those observed for cool-season California thunderstorms.
The increased CAPE due to upward sensible and latent heat fluxes was a result of the anomalously warm coastal SSTs (+1°–3°C) typical of strong El Niño events. Applications of the extrapolation method using a surface flux parameterization scheme and different SSTs suggested that convective destabilization due to nearshore surface fluxes may only occur during El Niño years when positive coastal SST anomalies are present. The fluxes may have no effect or a stabilizing effect during non–El Niño years, characterized by zero or negative coastal SST anomalies. In short, during strong El Niños, it appears that the associated coastal SST anomalies serve to further intensify the already anomalously strong storms in southern California, thus contributing to the increased flooding. This modulating effect by El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) of a mesoscale process has not been considered before in attempts at assessing the impacts of ENSO on U.S. west coast precipitation.