What are El Niño and La Niña events?

Heat waves, cooler, and rainy weather CAN all be caused by one of the events known as El Nino and La Nina. If you remember the heat wave last year where temperatures reached 100+ in some areas, El Nino was to blame. Here is why:

El Niño and La Niña events are a natural part of the global climate system. They occur when the Pacific Ocean and the atmosphere above it change from their neutral (‘normal’) state for several seasons. El Niño events are associated with a warming of the central and eastern tropical Pacific, while La Niña events are the reverse, with a sustained cooling of these same areas.  The atmosphere and ocean interact, reinforcing each other and creating a ‘feedback loop’ which amplifies small changes in the state of the ocean into an ENSO (El Niño–Southern Oscillation) event. When it is clear that the ocean and atmosphere are fully coupled an ENSO event is considered established. During an ENSO event, ocean temperatures become warmer than usual or cooler than usual at different locations, which are reflected in ocean temperature gradients. The most important driver of ENSO is these temperature gradients across the Pacific, both at the surface and below the surface, particularly at the thermocline.


Thermocline is the name for the region separating warm, well-mixed surface water from cool, deep ocean water. Typically water temperatures above the thermocline are more than 25°C (77F) while those below the thermocline are 15°C (59F) or less. The circulation of the air above the tropical Pacific Ocean responds to this tremendous redistribution of ocean heat. The typically strong high-pressure systems of the eastern Pacific weaken, thus changing the balance of atmospheric pressure across the eastern, central, and western Pacific. While easterly winds tend to be dry and steady, Pacific westerlies tend to come in bursts of warmer, moister air. Because of the vastness of the Pacific basin—covering one-third of the planet—these wind and humidity changes get transmitted around the world, disrupting circulation patterns such as jet streams (strong upper-level winds). We know these large-scale shifts in Pacific winds and waters initiate El Niño. What we don’t know is what triggers the shift. This remains a scientific mystery.

El Niño events occur roughly every two to seven years, as the warm cycle alternates irregularly with its sibling La Niña—a cooling pattern in the eastern Pacific—and with neutral conditions. El Niño typically peaks between November and January, though the buildup can be spotted months in advance and its effects can take months to propagate around the world.

So, what does La Nina mean? La Niña is characterized by unusually cold ocean temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific, compared to El Niño, which is characterized by unusually warm ocean temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific. In the U.S., winter temperatures are warmer than normal in the Southeast, and cooler than normal in the Northwest.  Global climate La Niña impacts tend to be opposite those of El Niño impacts. In the tropics, ocean temperature variations in La Niña tend to be opposite those of El Niño. During La Niña years, the trade winds are unusually strong due to an enhanced pressure gradient between the eastern and western Pacific. As a result, up welling is enhanced along the coast of South America, contributing to colder than normal surface waters over the eastern tropical Pacific and warmer than normal surface waters in the western tropical Pacific.

The first three months of the year during a La Niña typically feature below normal precipitation in the Southwest, the central and southern sections of the Rockies and Great Plains, and Florida. Meanwhile, the odds of surplus precipitation increase across the Pacific Northwest, in the northern Intermountain West, and over scattered sections of the north-central states, Ohio Valley, and upper Southeast. La Niña features unusually cold weather in the Northwest and (to a lesser extent) northern California, the northern Intermountain West, and the north-central states. Farther south, higher than normal temperatures are slightly favored in a broad area covering the southern Rockies and Great Plains, the Ohio Valley, the Southeast, and the mid-Atlantic states.

The next El Nino could take place late this summer and fall, according to researchers (follow link to read more about this event: http://www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov/products/analysis_monitoring/enso_advisory/ensodisc.shtml)



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