El Nino / La Nina Information

This page is designed to allow the user to easily navigate between several www pages that contain timely and relevant data and information on El Nino and La Nina.

Text for La Nina FAQ's courtesy of NOAA Public Affairs


La Nina Frequently Asked Questions

What is La Niña?
La Niña is defined as cooler than normal sea-surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific ocean that impact global weather patterns. La Niña conditions may persist for as long as two years.

What is the difference between La Niña and El Niño?
El Niño and La Niña are extreme phases of a naturally occurring climate cycle referred to as El Niño/Southern Oscillation. Both terms refer to large-scale changes in sea-surface temperature across the eastern tropical Pacific. Usually, sea-surface readings off South America's west coast range from the 60s to 70s F, while they exceed 80 degrees F in the "warm pool" located in the central and western Pacific. This warm pool expands to cover the tropics during El Niño, but during La Niña, the easterly trade winds strengthen and cold upwelling along the equator and the West coast of South America intensifies. Sea-surface temperatures along the equator can fall as much as 7 degrees F below normal.

Why do El Niño and La Niña occur?
El Niño and La Niña result from interaction between the surface of the ocean and the atmosphere in the tropical Pacific. Changes in the ocean impact the atmosphere and climate patterns around the globe. In turn, changes in the atmosphere impact the ocean temperatures and currents. The system oscillates between warm (El Niño) to neutral (or cold La Niña) conditions with an on average every 3-4 years.

What are the global impacts of La Niña?
Both El Niño and La Niña impact global and U.S. climate patterns. In many locations, especially in the tropics, La Niña (or cold episodes) produces the opposite climate variations from El Niño. For instance, parts of Australia and Indonesia are prone to drought during El Niño, but are typically wetter than normal during La Niña.

What are the U.S. impacts of La Niña?
La Niña often features drier than normal conditions in the Southwest in late summer through the subsequent winter. Drier than normal conditions also typically occur in the Central Plains in the fall and in the Southeast in the winter. In contrast, the Pacific Northwest is more likely to be wetter than normal in the late fall and early winter with the presence of a well-established La Niña. Additionally, on average La Niña winters are warmer than normal in the Southeast and colder than normal in the Northwest.

What is the forecast for sea surface temperatures for the remainder of 1998 and into winter 1999 and how strong will the event be?
The latest National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) coupled-model forecast (an ocean-atmosphere model) (July 1998) indicate strengthening cold episode conditions in the tropical Pacific during the remainder of 1998.

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These forecasts are updated monthly by NOAA's Climate Prediction Center and are available at http://www.cpc.noaa.gov/

   

Other statistical and coupled-model forecasts indicate a similar evolution. The consistency among the available predictions together with the evolution of oceanic and atmospheric conditions since early May indicate that a cold episode is developing and will likely continue through the northern 1998-99 winter.
The current forecasts indicate that the 1998/99 La Niña will be a moderate to strong episode.

What is the forecast for U.S. weather patterns for the remainder of this year and into 1999?
NOAA's Climate Prediction Center issues monthly long lead climate outlooks that extend for the next 13 months. The forecast issued on July 16, 1998, calls for continued above normal temperatures throughout most of the Southwest U.S. and southern Florida in the late summer and fall. Into the fall, warmer than normal temperatures are forecast for much of the Southwest including Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and portions of Colorado. These conditions will extend across the Southeast during the winter months. Cooler than normal temperatures are expected for the Pacific Northwest in the winter. Temperatures are expected to be cooler than normal across the Great Lakes and Northeast later in the winter into spring.
Drier-than-normal conditions will persist in west Texas, New Mexico and Arizona through August and into October.

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The long-lead climate outlooks are updated monthly by NOAA's Climate Prediction Center and are available on the Internet at http://www.cpc.noaa.gov/

   

The late fall and early winter forecasts indicate continued dry conditions throughout much of the southern United States and into portions of the Midwest. Greater than normal precipitation is predicted for the Pacific Northwest throughout the fall and into the winter months and for the Ohio and Tennessee River Valley in the winter. Temperature and precipitation patterns in areas that are not specifically addressed by the forecast are not predictable at this time.

Does a La Niña typically follow an El Niño?
No, a La Niña episode may, but does not always follow an El Niño.

How often does La Niña occur?
El Niño and La Niña occur on average every 3 to 5 years. However, in the historical record the interval between events has varied from 2 to 7 years. According to the National Centers for Environmental Prediction, this century's previous La Niñas began in 1903, 1906, 1909, 1916, 1924, 1928, 1938, 1950, 1954, 1964, 1970, 1973, 1975, 1988, and 1995. These events typically continued into the following spring. Since 1975, La Niñas have been only half as frequent as El Niños.

How long does a La Niña last?
La Niña conditions typically last approximately 9-12 months. Some episodes may persist for as long as two years.

How do scientists detect La Niña and El Niño and predict their evolution?
Scientists from NOAA and other agencies use a variety of tools and techniques to monitor and forecast changes in the Pacific Ocean and the impact of those changes on global weather patterns. In the tropical Pacific Ocean, El Niño is detected by many methods, including satellites, moored buoys, drifting buoys, sea level analysis, and expendable buoys. Many of these ocean observing systems were part of the Tropical Ocean Global Atmosphere (TOGA) program, and are now evolving into an operational El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) observing system.

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Ka'Imimoana home page
TAO array
National Center for Environmental Prediction
Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory
   

NOAA also operates a research ship, the KA'IMIMOANA, which is dedicated to servicing the Tropical Ocean Atmosphere (TAO) buoy network component of the observing system. Large computer models of the global ocean and atmosphere, such as those at the National Centers for Environmental Prediction, use data from the ENSO observing system as input to predict El Niño. Other models are used for El Niño research, such as those at NOAA's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, at the Center for Ocean-Land-Atmosphere Studies, and other research institutions.

Why is predicting these types of events so important?
Better predictions of the potential for extreme climate episodes like floods and droughts could save the United States billions of dollars in damage costs. Predicting the onset of a warm or cold phase is critical in helping water, energy and transportation managers, and farmers plan for, avoid or mitigate potential losses. Advances in improved climate predictions will also result in significantly enhanced economic opportunities, particularly for the national agriculture, fishing, forestry and energy sectors, as well as social benefits.

What is the relationship between El Niño/La Niña and global warming?
The jury is still out on this. Are we likely to see more El Niños because of global warming? Will they be more intense? These are the main research questions facing the science community today. Research will help us separate the natural climate variability from any trends due to man's activities. We cannot figure out the "fingerprint" of global warming if we cannot sort out what the natural variability does. We also need to look at the link between decadal changes in natural variability and global warming. At this time we can't preclude the possibility of links but it would be too early to definitely say there is a link.

Is this a "La Niña" hurricane/tropical storm/drought/fire/flood/winter storm?

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Hurricane information from the National Weather Service

   

It is inaccurate to label individual storms or events as a La Niña or El Niño event. Rather, these climate extremes affect the position and intensity of the jet streams, which in turn affect the intensity and track of storms. During La Niña, the normal climate patterns are enhanced. For example, in areas that would normally experience a wet winter, conditions would likely be wetter than normal.

How is La Niña influencing the Atlantic and Pacific hurricane seasons?
Dr. William Gray at the Colorado State University has pioneered research efforts leading to the discovery of La Niña impacts on Atlantic hurricane activity, and to the first and, presently only, operational long-range forecasts of Atlantic basin hurricane activity. According to this research, the chances for the continental U.S. and the Caribbean Islands to experience hurricane activity increases substantially during La Niña.

What impacts do El Niño and La Niña have on tornadic activity across the country?
Since a strong jet stream is an important ingredient for severe weather, the position of the jet stream determines the regions more likely to experience tornadoes.

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Tornado information from the National Weather Service

   

Contrasting El Niño and La Niña winters, the jet stream over the United States is considerably different. During El Niño the jet stream is oriented from west to east over the northern Gulf of Mexico and northern Florida. Thus this region is most susceptible to severe weather. During La Niña the jet stream extends from the central Rockies east- northeastward to the eastern Great Lakes. Thus severe weather is likely to be further north and west during La Niña than El Niño.

How are sea surface temperatures monitored?
Sea surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean are monitored with data buoys and satellites. NOAA operates a network of 70 data buoys along the equatorial Pacific that provide important data about conditions at the ocean's surface. The data is complimented and calibrated with satellite data collected by NOAA's Polar Orbiting Environmental Satellites, NASA's TOPEX/POSEIDEN satellite and others.

How are the data buoys used to monitor ocean temperatures?
Observations of conditions in the tropical Pacific are essential for the prediction of short term (a few months to one year) climate variations. To provide necessary data, NOAA operates a network of buoys that measure temperature, currents and winds in the equatorial band. These buoys transmit data that are available to researchers and forecasters around the world in real time.

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NOAA's latest research initiatives
Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory
PMEL's FAQ page
NOAA El Niño page FAQ links