The zooplankton of the northern California Current are typically characterized by an abundance of lipid-rich copepods that support rapid growth and survival of ecologically, commercially, and recreationally valued fish, birds, and mammals. Disruption of this food chain and reduced ecosystem productivity are often associated with climatic variability such as El Niño events. We examined the variability in timing, magnitude, and duration of positive temperature anomalies and changes in copepod species composition in the northern California Current in relation to 10 tropical El Niño events. Measurable impacts on mesozooplankton of the northern California Current were observed during seven of 10 of these events. The occurrence of anomalously warm water and the response of the copepod community was rapid (lag of zero to 2 months) following the initiation of canonical Eastern Pacific (EP) events, but delayed (lag of 2–8 months) following ‘Modoki’ Central Pacific (CP) events. The variable lags in the timing of a physical and biological response led to impacts in the northern California Current peaking in winter during EP events and in the spring during CP events. The magnitude and duration of the temperature and copepod anomalies were strongly and positively related to the magnitude and duration of El Niño events, but were also sensitive to the phase of the lower frequency Pacific Decadal Oscillation. When fisheries managers and biological oceanographers are faced with the prospect of a future El Niño event, prudent management and observation will require consideration of the background oceanographic conditions, the type of event, and both the magnitude and duration of the event when assessing the potential physical and biological impacts on the northern California Current.