By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, Calif., Sept 4 (Reuters) - The Pacific Ocean phenomenon called El Nino, which can lead to storms in the U.S. Southwest and other places, will likely start soon, but may not bring hoped-for relief to drought-parched California, U.S. government meteorologists said on Thursday.
Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in a report the likelihood was increasing that El Nino, characterized by a warming of the ocean temperature in the eastern Pacific near the equator, would be weak this year.
A weak El Nino could still bring flooding, storms and even hurricanes to Southern California, but it is too soon to tell whether that will happen, said Eric Boldt, a meteorologist with the agency.
"Weak-to-moderate El Ninos are historically very dry to very wet," Boldt said. "Anything could happen."
Many in the most populous U.S. state have pinned their hopes for rain on the phenomenon, which brought torrential rains to California in 2005 and the fall and winter of 1997-1998.
The state, the largest U.S. grower of fruits and vegetables, is in the throes of a devastating drought that is expected to cost its economy $2.2 billion in lost crops, jobs and other damage.
According to the latest data from the United States Drought Monitor, nearly 60 percent of the state is experiencing "exceptional" drought, the worst drought conditions possible. (Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Peter Cooney)