If La Niña follows the current super El Niño, it will probably be bad news for drought-plagued California

By Tom Yulsman | February 13, 2016 5:25 pm

La Niña tends to cause drying in California, and it often persists — and deepens — for years afterward

La Niña

As the animation above shows, the strong La Niña of 1999/2000 followed the record El Niño of 1997/1998. El Niño is characterized by a large pool of warmer than average waters along the equator in the eastern Pacific. In a La Niña, the opposite occurs. (Source: NASA)

The El Niño that has been helping to spawn wild and wacky weather in many parts of the world for months now is still very strong. But the latest analysis from the U.S. Climate Prediction Center suggests that it should start to weaken and transition to neutral conditions by late spring or summer.

Then what?

If the cooling of the eastern and central tropical Pacific characteristic of a weakening El Niño progresses enough, we could well find ourselves in a La Niña by next fall or winter. That’s the opposite of an El Niño, and it typically brings dry winters to California. That, of course, would be bad news for the state — which is still struggling to emerge from an epic drought.

Ok. Before I go any further, I need to emphasize an important caveat: Right now, the Climate Prediction Center puts the odds of a La Niña developing at 50/50. That’s a coin flip. Still…

I thought I’d tell the story of what could be coming over the next year or so with the help of animations and other imagery.

The animation up top consists of two graphics based on data from the Topex/Poseidon mission showing the state of the tropical Pacific Ocean.

The first image shows conditions during the record El Niño of 1997/1998. That gigantic spear of white, orange and yellow jutting out from South America along the equator is indicative of much warmer than average sea surface temperatures — a hallmark of El Niño.

And by the way, the current El Niño ties with 1997/1998 as the strongest El Niño on record.

The second image in the animation shows conditions during the strong La Niña of 1999/2000. That uneven blob of purple, magenta and blue along the equator is indicative of much cooler than average sea surface temperatures. This is pretty much the opposite of El Niño, and it is a hallmark of La Niña.

The La Niña that ultimately developed after the “super” El Niño of 97/98 was a strong one, as this graphic shows:

La Niña

The Oceanic Niño Index, or ONI, shows warm El Niño (red) and cold La Niña (blue) phases of abnormal sea surface temperatures in the east-central tropical Pacific Ocean.  (Source: Kevin Trenberth/National Center for Atmospheric Research. Note: I’ve added some labels to the original graphic. )

Does that mean that a strong La Niña will develop after our current El Niño? Not necessarily. In the graph above, have a look at the La Niña that developed after the 82/83 super El Niño.

It’s piddling by comparison.

The moral here is that a more sophisticated statistical analysis is necessary to reveal anything useful. And at the excellent ENSO Blog, atmospheric scientist Anthony G. Barnston has done just that. Based on statistics of past events, he finds that stronger El Niño’s do increase the odds of a La Niña the following year.

Overall, Barnston concludes based on the historical record alone that the likeliest outcome is for a weak La Niña to follow our current super El Niño. The physics of strong El Niño’s tend to support this view, he says. But he also emphasizes this caveat: uncertainties are high!

As I mentioned at the outset, based on all of the evidence at hand right now, the current consensus forecast is for a 50 percent chance of some sort of La Niña during the September/October/November period.

La Niña

The first map in the animation above shows average winter conditions in years following a La Niña. California tends to experience drier than normal conditions. The next map shows what happened during the winter of 2012/2013 and 2013/2014, which followed the La Niña of 2011/2012: Drier still in California. Also in 2013/2014: a large blob of extremely warm water helped lock in a pattern that accentuated the drying. (Images: ENSO Blog on Climate.gov. Animation: Tom Yulsman)

I created the animation above to provide a sense of what could happen if a La Niña actually does develop and then subsequently decay to neutral conditions. It is based on imagery that first appeared in another excellent post at the ENSO Blog.

The first map in the animation shows average conditions in the year after a La Niña has gone away. Note the browns over California indicative of drier than normal conditions persisting there. Not good.

And it gets worse.

The subsequent maps in the animation show what happened in 2012/2013 — the year after a La Niña coincident with the start of California’s drought — and then 2013/2014.  Again, La Niña is long gone. Yet check out those spreading and deepening brown colors over California, and much of the western seaboard of North America too. They tell the tale of a truly epic drought.

We can’t blame the El Niño-La Niño cycle — which is known as “ENSO” — entirely. Other climatic factors clearly played a role. For example, there’s “The Blob,” a huge region of abnormally warm surface waters that lingered off the West Coast of North America, helping to lock in a pattern that accentuated California’s drying.

Will the current super El Niño give way to a La Niña this winter and fall? It’s too soon to say for sure. But if it does, we should expect California to experience drying again. And if past experience is an accurate guide, it could get even worse in subsequent years.

I probably don’t need to tell you that this would be really, really bad news.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Climate, Drought, ENSO, Ocean, select, Top Posts, Weather
  • OWilson

    Caution: Our Fearless Forecaster is at it again :)

    “IF” a La Nina follows, it will “PROBABLY” be bad for California.

    Statistical probabilities tell us that If you string an “if” and and “could”, you can construct any scenario you like.

    On the other hand “with puts the odds of a La Niña developing at 50/50. That’s a coin flip. Still…” you could just as easily predict any kind of good news.

    But, says our erstwhile less than optimistic scribe, it’s “not good” and it “gets worse”.

    But wait! He says, “I need to emphasize an important caveat: Right now, the Climate Prediction Center puts the odds of a La Niña developing at 50/50. That’s a coin flip. Still…” ( But one can hope :)

    So IF you want to feel good instead of bad, consider IF you go to the store, you COULD by a winning lottery ticket.

    And, to paraphrase, “I probably don’t need to tell you that this would be really, really GOOD news.

    • Tom Yulsman

      Jesus, man, will you ever have anything positive to say about Our Fearless Forecaster? Are you this curmudgeonly in real life?

      • OWilson

        I’m “positive” about life, the earth’s ability to maintain balance, and man’s ability to adapt to his environment, a few hundredths of a degree, either way :

        We had a Valentine’s party this weekend, and we never once feared a catastrophic end to our celebration of life.

        Just sayin’ :)

        Jesus, does anybody you know read your stuff before you post it?

        • Tom Yulsman

          If you would like to be banned from the site, perhaps because you are exhausted of your addiction to criticizing people like me, I will be more than happy to do it. Just say the word and it will be done.

          • OWilson

            As always that is entirely up to you.

            But I am certainly not exhausted in pointing out reality versus speculation.

            I’m happy to debate with all comers :)


          • Tom Yulsman

            Even worse Mr. Wilson: Consider yourself ignored. Bye.

          • Tom Yulsman

            Just to elaborate: Mr. Wilson, trying to engage in productive dialogue with you is all but impossible. That’s because you seem to believe you are smarter and more knowledgable than everyone else. You appear to have little humility. If there is a drop of compassion in your blood, it has not surfaced here. You never admit that another perspective might possibly be as useful as yours. You never admit that you’re wrong. And in all the time you’ve been commenting here, I do not believe you’ve ever said, “Thank you for that perspective. I disagree with it, but I’ve learned something from it. So thank you.”

            You are a 24/7 critic with nothing to offer but your criticism. In short, you are a bore and a waste of time.

            But please, Mr. Wilson, feel free to continue to flaunt your hubris and disregard for the perspectives of others. I realize now that what you say needs no riposte. Pretty much everything you say is self-refuting.

          • OWilson

            Look for our common ground, as well as our differences, Tom.

            You want to save the “planet”.

            I want to save the “world”.

            Once a society is led to disrespect “dissent”, and skepticism, they are on the way to hell!

            I have seen it happen and it is being re-run 24/7 on the History Channel.

            Even today across the world, jails are full of such folks, and there are even people here who would charge AGW dessenters as criminals.

        • Mike Richardson

          I think explaining the processes which could impact the drought in a major agricultural region of the U.S. does count as real science. This does affect people’s lives, and therefore is useful information. Is it that controversial that you want to play martyr arguing to be banned? Seems a strange issue to fight about.

        • R8der4evr

          Bet on God
          Evolution is so silly to fathom

  • Justin McMillan

    Is Australia experiencing a La Nina? Does that explain the huge increase in the number of sharks now seen off the east coast? is the East Coast (western pacific) getting warmer?

  • Tony Short

    We never got the rain from this “Godzilla El Niño!” So it’s 50/50 we will fo La Niña!

  • Tony Short

    The resilient high pressure needs to be studied more! This super El Niño couldn’t penetrate!

  • dont drink the koolaid

    Every expert, I read, without exception warned of the dire consequences of the coming “Super” El Niño. Scary stuff too.

    Now, as the wacky weather from this “Super” sputters out …should we gird ourselves for the devastation of an inevitable La Niña? Why, Of course.

    Seriously, I would be shocked if the natural cycles of these little understood phenomenons were to be viewed as normal, natural, and healthy rather than being exploited for warning the uninformed that there is a 50/50 chance something bad may happen soon.

    Looking back on experts’ insights and one may notice a pattern:
    Each and every message is the same -regardless of the nature of their “evidence”
    ….be afraid, be very afraid.

    Will some expert ever say: hey look, there’s a 50/50 chance there will be ordinary storms bringing rains to the farm fields of the Midwest followed by warm sunshine?

    Such a paradigm is not likely, after all, where’s the drama in that?

    But, in the chance that I have not characterized this dynamic correctly …please feel free to list a couple “likely” beneficial weather patterns resulting from the next ‘up and coming’ ENSO event. You know, like pushing low pressure systems into the Midwest to bless those farmers with the rain needed for a bountiful harvest?

    Good luck to you, I hope all your hopes and wishes come true -as long as those aspirations do not include a desire to be correct in your forecasts of impending Armageddon.

    Enjoy the week cuz the weatherman is saying we can expect a couple days of seasonably mild weather with mostly sunny skies after these past two nights of light rain… and before the showers predicted for this Friday evening.

    Get out and enjoy,



ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.


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