Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.
By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 3:39 PM GMT on February 27, 2012
La Niña, the cooling of the equatorial Pacific waters off the coast of South America that has dramatically affected our weather for most of the past two years, is almost done. Sea surface temperatures (SSTs) over the tropical Eastern Pacific in the area 5°N - 5°S, 120°W - 170°W, also called the "Niña 3.4 region", have warmed rapidly over the past two weeks, and were 0.4°C below average on February 27. This is slightly warmer than the -0.5°C threshold to be considered La Niña conditions, and is the first time since early August that La Niña conditions have not been present. It is likely that SSTs will continue to warm during March and April, and NOAA's Climate Prediction Center is predicting that they will declare an official end to La Niña sometime between March and April. A moderate to strong La Niña began in the summer of 2010, weakened briefly during May - July 2011 to neutral status, then re-intensified to a borderline weak/moderate La Niña from August 2011 - January 2012.
Figure 1. Comparison of the sea surface temperature departure from average from January 4 and February 22, 2012, over the tropical Eastern Pacific. During January, a large region of the ocean was more than 0.5°C cooler than average, meaning a La Niña event was present. Beginning in mid-February, waters warmed rapidly from east to west along the Equator, signaling and end to the La Niña event. Image credit: NOAA.
The forecast: neutral or El Niño conditions by fall
The period March - May is the typical time of year that El Niño or La Niña events end, and it is common for the opposite phenomena to take hold by fall. Since 1950, there have been twelve La Niña events that ended during the first half of the year; during six of those years (50%), an El Niño event formed in time for the August - September - October peak of hurricane season. The official forecast from Columbia University's IRI and NOAA's Climate Prediction Center calls for a 31 - 32% chance of an El Niño event during the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season. El Niño conditions tend to suppress Atlantic hurricane activity by creating high levels of wind shear that tends to tear hurricanes apart. Given the relatively high chance of an El Niño event this fall, plus ocean temperatures over the tropical Atlantic that are cooler than we saw in 2011 and 2010, I doubt we'll see an Atlantic hurricane season as active as the ones in 2010 and 2011 (nineteen named storms both years, third busiest seasons on record.) The demise of La Niña also means that global temperatures should begin to approach record warm levels by the end of the year. The cool waters of a La Niña event keep global temperatures cooler than average.
Figure 2. Computer model forecasts of El Niño/La Niña made in mid-February 2012. The forecasts that go above the red line at +0.5°C denote El Niño conditions; -0.5°C to +0.5°C denote neutral conditions, and below -0.5°C denote La Niña conditions. Most of the computer models are predicting neutral or El Niño conditions during the fall peak of the Atlantic hurricane season. Image credit: Columbia University's IRI.
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