The tropical Pacific Ocean keeps it’s cool as La Niña persists

By Tom Yulsman | December 8, 2016 10:21 am
The swath of blue across most of the central and eastern equatorial Pacific in the visualization above show cool sea surface temperatures indicative of La Niña. (Source:

The swath of blue across most of the central and eastern equatorial Pacific in the visualization above shows cool sea surface temperatures indicative of La Niña. (Source:

Last month’s forecast of a continuing La Niña has panned out, with cool sea surface temperatures persisting across most of the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean.

It’s a weak La Niña, and in all likelihood it will peter out by March, if not sooner, according to the just-released monthly update from the Climate Prediction Center of the National Weather Service.

But even though it is relatively puny, La Niña is already tipping the odds toward above average warmth and below average precipitation across much of the southern tier of the United States during December, January and February. Meanwhile, temperatures should dip below average and precipitation should be more copious than normal in parts of the nation’s northern tier.

The outlook for temperature (left) and precipitation (right) for December, January and February in the United States. Cool temperatures are expected across parts of the northern tier of states. (Source: Climate Prediction Center)

The outlook for temperature (left) and precipitation (right) for December, January and February in the United States. (Source: Climate Prediction Center)

As the cool, flip side to El Niño, La Niña tends to depress global temperatures somewhat. But contrary to widely circulated claims made last week in, we shouldn’t expect it to have any appreciable impact on the long-term climb in global temperatures caused by humankind’s emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

As the graph in the The Weather Channel’s Tweet shows (see above), both El Niño and La Niña are associated with year-to-year ups and downs in global temperatures — but these are superimposed on a long, inexorable upward trend.

  • Martha Bartha

    Cool Jules?

  • RealOldOne2

    Both El Niño and La Niña are natural climate phenomena, continuing to occur as they always have. El Niños are periods of high sea surface temperatures in the Eastarn tropical Pacific and release stored solar energy from the oceans into the atmosphere, causing a significant increase in mean temperature of the atmosphere by as much as ~0.5C from the previous year. La Niñas are periods where sea surface is cooler in that area, and the ocean heat is ‘recharged’ by accumulating solar heat again.

    A couple decades there were predictions that human caused global warming were changing this natural climate phenomena to create a permanent El Niño condition.

    “It appears that we have a very good case for suggesting that El Niños are going to become more frequent, and they are going to become more intense, and in a few years or a decade or so, we’ll go into permanent El Niño … and you’ll have El Niños that last 18 months, 18 years.” – Dr. Russell Schnell, 1997,

    In the nearly two decades since Schnell made that prediction, humans have added ~600 billion tons of CO2 to the atmosphere, which is 40% of all the human CO2 ever produced, yet
    we’ve had two very strong El Niños, two moderate El Niños, two weak El Niños, one strong La Niña, three moderate La Niñas and five weak La Niñas, and we are presently in another weak La Niña condition. In other words, his prediction failed, and ENSO (El Niño/Southern Oscillation) has continued as before. That has happened even though humans have added 600 billion tons of CO2 to the atmosphere since Snell made his prediction. That is 40% of all the human CO2 ever produced.

    Also since Schnell’s 1997 prediction, the only reason for the small positive temperature trend of the atmosphere has been the very strong natural 2016 El Niño. Without that El Niño, the temperature of the atmosphere had been flat for over 18 years.

    This empirical evidence shows that climate change continues to be caused primarily by natural climate variability, not human CO2.



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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