La Niña is dead – and good riddance

By Phil Plait | May 8, 2012 12:00 pm

I am very happy to see a very unwelcome visitor go away: La Niña is dead.

Over time, the pattern of ocean and atmospheric circulation changes. When cooler water in the eastern Pacific Ocean is brought to the surface at the Equator, it’s called La Niña, and when that water is warmer it’s El Niño. This changes the way winds blow and water evaporates, and during La Niña Australia gets torrential rains and floods, while the US gets drought conditions, especially in the southwest.

This year, the jet stream was also held up near the US/Canada border, so the winter was very mild, and many states suffered severely dry conditions. But finally, after two years, equatorial waters are warming up. As you can see in the image above, the water near the Equator was cooler (blue) in January 2012, and now a stream of warmer water (red) has appeared north of it. This means neutral conditions will take hold (and eventually lead to an El Niño).

All winter here in Boulder it’s been far warmer and drier than usual, and in my travels these past few months the story has been the same nearly everywhere. The mountains to my west have been nearly free of snow, something I haven’t seen since moving here. But literally, as I type this it’s raining steadily outside, again something I haven’t seen in many months.

It’s very welcome! Well, I’m rather hoping it doesn’t interfere with the talk and star party I’m doing in Boulder this coming Saturday, but in the meantime it’ll be nice to see the creeks rising, the snow pack increasing, and the trees looking a little bit peppier.

Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory/Jesse Allen and Kevin Ward, using JASON-2 data provided by Akiko Kayashi, NASA/JPL Ocean Topography Team.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Pretty pictures, Science
MORE ABOUT: El Nino, La Nina, weather

Comments (25)

  1. Carol

    hope hope hope. Seeing naked mountains (especially Longs Peak) in April is disconcerting.

  2. This post appeared in the RSS feed before it was available, so the RSS-feed link gave a 404.

  3. the jet stream was also held up near the US/Canada border

    Your immigration officials…

  4. Chris

    Be careful what you wish for. El Nino can be just as bad as La Nina. In fact it should make it possible to make a new hottest year on record. If it’s hotter, more moisture in the air, bigger storms more floods. It seems like the only certainty about the weather is that it will be wild and wacky.

  5. Chris S

    Re: “it’ll be nice to see the creeks rising, the snow pack increasing, and the trees looking a little bit peppier”

    We like what we like, but don’t you think you should recognize this sentence as a somewhat biased sentiment?

    Unlike some other aspects of our world-wide climate, I’ve never seen a suggestion that the La Niña / El Niño swings are anything other than a natural oscillation. Our natural environment has never been static, and the El Niño you prefer comes with potientially damaging consequencies for India with the lack of monsoon rains.

  6. Sathish

    El Nino are usually bad for India …We depend on Monsoon and La nina years are very good…

  7. TomF

    “But literally, as I type this it’s raining steadily outside, again something I haven’t seen in many months. ”

    Must have had a visit from Tim Minchin, Atheist Rain God (

  8. DrFlimmer

    Speaking of “neutral patterns”: The April in Germany has been rather odd for recent years. In the last few years Aprils in Germany used to be dry and quite warm, This year we had the typical Aprilwetter (weather of April), from one moment to the other it changed completely with every expected and unexpected pattern possible.
    I haven’t seen that for quite some time. The weather is back to “normal” this year.

  9. For some reason, I seem to recall that people were all upset and blaming El Niño for natural disasters throughout the midwest. So I suppose Texas won’t be in the news with 100+ days of 100+ temperatures, but instead it will be the Mississippi flooding out all the states along its banks to historic new levels? Just guessing of course.

  10. Jeff Keogh

    Good riddance to La Nina? No no no no, that’s a terrible thing to say!

    The Murray River has a decent flow in it for the first time in over a decade. With La Nina ending the drought will return, and we can look forward next summer to some devastating bushfires, failed crops and starving sheep.

    La Ninas are good. Bloody good.

    I understand that you dislike the dry conditions that result in the US, but to applaud La Ninas departure is a bit Amerocentric.

  11. Zenzan

    Phil, I concur with @Jeff Keogh. Australia has sufferred terrible drought conditions for 10 years under successive El Nino conditions before the last two to three years of El Nina.

    Yeah, we had a flood or two here and there … just minor hic ups.

    What would be nice is if the switch between El Nino and El Nina got a bit of oil on it and got flicked more regularly rather than being rusted in place for a decade at a time.

  12. Tonia Scoville

    For strictly selfish reasons, I’m glad to see the change since Oklahoma spent last summer under a magnifying glass. I do not wish to suffer the same fate ants do when placed under the glass. 116 degrees the hottest day, no rain, it was very unpleasant.

  13. Joe

    Thank God! Last year was a nightmare. We had 50 some days over 100 and no rain to speak of.

  14. As i recall, the el Nina in the Pacific is linked to drought conditions in East Africa, so this is one Sydneysider who’d like to see a more regular switching of the two conditions. As Zenzan points out, the problem isn’t el Nino or el Nina, but the way they like to travel in packs….

  15. Well that’s just fine and dandy, but down here in Australia that means now it’s our turn with el nino…
    So thanks for nothing Phil… Nth Hemispherism at it’s worst I must say…
    la nina isn’t that unwelcome ‘down under’, while we’ve had some massive flooding, the rains seem to have the nice effect of ending el nino enduced droughts.

  16. omeoide

    @Jeff Keogh – What’s wrong with allowing local consequences of global phenomena affect one’s opinion of them? What’s really the big difference between “dislik[ing] the dry conditions” and “applaud[ing] La Ninas departure?” So you like the local conditions brought by La Niña. Lament its passing. Tell us you do. Correct his facts if you think he’s wrong about the costs/benefits of heavy rains in Australia.

    But don’t say he shouldn’t feel happy to see it pass for his own local reasons, or be expressive about it. There’s no need to assume its coming from some hidden imperialist bias or a blindness to global experience and opinion.

  17. Muzz

    He did have nothing good to say about it, on at least a trans-pacific scale, regardless of his opinion being local based. It is worth pointing out that la Nina conditions in Australia have been, on the whole, very good and for much of the country calling it life saving is not an exaggeration.

  18. Jeff Keogh


    Nothing at all wrong with that. You’ll note that that is what I have done, so I take no issue with lauding local benefits.

    Please read Phil’s post again. It speaks of La Nina as a universally negative phenomenon, and that is what I take issue with. (And ‘take issue’ is too strong a term, really, for what I intend).

    But let’s be honest here. La Nina is a net positive for a greater percentage of the global population, and El Nino a net negative. So to applaud its departure is Amerocentric. That’s nice if you’re talking to a fellow American, but the internet is available to the rest of the world, you know.

  19. redartifice

    Apart from two freak Floods, La Nina is pretty good for us in Australia.

  20. Ythaca

    It’s so nice to be able to get the washing dry – even as the days get colder. But the rain was good to a point, it would be nice if we could get rain without it drowning the place. In Australia it seems it never rains but it pours…

    @redartifice – what of all the farmers who have lost what had look like good crops to too much rain. It was not just the two freak floods there was far more damage than just that.

  21. dlanod

    @Ythaca Speaking to my mother-in-law (lives in western Queensland, home of plenty of the floods) overall the rains (even the floods) of La Nina were much better for farmers than El Nino. Yes, they lost some crops to the deluges, but they also got some bumper crops out of land that was previously marginal at best.

  22. Ythaca

    @ dlanod All the grape growers near us and a lot of the other crop growers lost crops just prior to harvest. It would be nice if we didn’t have to have drought or flood. Something in between would be nice.
    I think Australian weather patterns are actually an argument against there being a god. No god would design weather like this!

  23. Alan Couch

    La Nina has been great – we have had a decade of drought down here in Australia before that – please don’t disparage La Nina!

  24. Messier Tidy Upper

    I am very happy to see a very unwelcome visitor go away: La Niña is dead.

    Nah, La Nina ain’t dead, BA! She’s just taking a break and letting her brother run the weather show for a few years! She’ll be back eventually – like her or not. 😉

  25. Wrong

    It’s gonna be a threepeat La Nina.


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