The Attack of El Nino

If you read the paper in Southern California, listen to or watch the news, there is no doubt that this beast called El Niño is  approaching. Ocean temperatures have risen (I’m happy about that since I enjoy the ocean), local climate is changing, and the end to our four year drought may be in sight. El Niño is a term applied to a prolonged warming of the tropical pacific ocean that leads to high air pressure in the western pacific, low pressure in the eastern pacific, and global weather changes including severe rain and storms.

Like all newsworthy events, the media works at sensationalizing fear, disaster, and the consequences of such, into something that may or may not occur at the epic proportions being broadcast. Yet for drought impacted State of California, the potentially promised above normal rainfall may be a welcome extreme.

But how quickly we may forget. Along with El Niño can be devastating floods, mudslides, tree failures, power outages, severe accidents, and other tragic consequences.  Of course the same is true with drought that brings death to trees, forest fires, and downturns in the economy that are related to water.

The reality is that drought and El Niño are cyclical and we need to be ready for anything that comes our way. Since our ability to control weather is non-existent, we need to take care of what we can.   During drought, the emphasis is on drought tolerant landscape, clearing defensible space around fire susceptible properties, installing low water use plumbing fixtures inside, and drip irrigation on the outside.  These have all been pro-active measures that save water and save lives.

So what does a tree owner do with El Niño approaching? From an Arborists perspective, there is plenty that can be done. Many trees have been severely weakened by the drought. Deadwood in trees is likely to be abundant right now.  Opportunist root pathogens may have moved into major support roots thus impacting the stability of some trees. Many trees may not have been pruned in quite some time and seem to be healthy despite the drought. Due to structural defects such as co-dominant stems, hollow trunks, and disease infected limbs, many trees may be ready to fail, waiting for that stronger than normal storm to push it over the edge.

Here is a strategy to help you weather the storm:

  • Look at your trees, and acknowledge if they overhang structures, property lines, high voltage, roadways, sidewalks, and recreational areas (these are underlying targets).
  • Evaluate their condition including health and structure. Assess  the likelihood of a tree failure and the potential consequences to the underlying targets. [Use a qualified arborist for this work].
  • Prioritize pruning or tree removal based on risk first and budget. Take care of the highest risk trees first.  If a high risk tree can not be mitigated, consider options to keep people out!
  • Prepare yourself with a plan and escape route in case a tree falls over the driveway.

Although news has a tendency to sensationalize anything and everything, perhaps its a good wake up call to get tree owners to take a closer look and determine how they can be pro-active and prevent a crisis before it occurs.  Once that is done, let’s sit back and enjoy the rain.

How can I help you with your trees?


Bill Spiewak






  1. Thanks to your great watering advice I think I have saved a giant acacia tree in my yard-taller than my two-story house. While I still have some dead branches to remove, I am noticing lots of new growth on the majority of the tree! I’d like to know if a feeding at this time would be helpful in getting this beast through the winter.

    1. Madelyn, it really depends on the soil condition beneath the tree. If you have organic matter such as leaf liter or chips below the canopy, no need for fertilizer right now. If you have dead turf or bare soil, I suggest you add chips as mulch. You can supplement that with a slow release fertilizer that is high in nitrogen. Avoid quick release fertilizers or over application of any fertilizer. Read the label and apply accordingly. However, mulch is a great addition and I recommend that most. It isn’t about getting the tree through the winter, its more about the rainfall soaking in and not drying out so quickly in between the raindrops. The fertilizer is really about minerals being available in the soil in the spring during the onset of new growth.
      Good luck,

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