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La Niña by July?

By: Dr. Jeff Masters, 1:42 PM GMT on June 08, 2010

El Niño rapidly dissipated in May, and we are now very close to entering into a La Niña event, according to the latest sea surface temperature (SST) data over the tropical Eastern Pacific. The weekly SST readings in the area 5°N - 5°S, 120°W - 170°W, also called the "Niña 3.4 region", fell to 0.4°C below average on June 7, a full 1°C drop in just one and a half months. This puts us very close to the -0.5°C threshold needed to be considered a La Niña event, according to NOAA's latest El Niño Discussion. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology showed conditions in the Niña 3.4 region were not quite that cool--0.2°C below average for the week ending June 6. Nevertheless, the speed of the collapse of El Niño makes it likely that a La Niña event is on its way this summer, and NOAA's Climate Prediction Center has issued a La Niña watch. Ten of the 23 El Niño models (updated as of May 19) are predicting La Niña conditions for hurricane season. However, as NOAA's Climate Prediction Center commented in their June 3 advisory, a number of the more reliable models are now calling for La Niña to develop this summer. They comment, "there is an increasing confidence in these colder model forecasts, which is supported by recent observations that show cooling trends in the Pacific Ocean and signs of coupling with the atmospheric circulation." Historically, about 35 - 40% of El Niño events are followed by a La Niña within the same year.

Figure 1. Atlantic named storm, hurricane, and intense hurricane activity since the active hurricane period we are in began in 1995. Both La Niña and neutral years have shown similar levels of Atlantic hurricane activity, though the figures are somewhat skewed by the record-setting year of 2005. Background photo: Hurricane Dean, taken from the Space Shuttle.

It is interesting to note that the last time we had a strong El Niño event, in 1998, El Niño collapsed dramatically in May, and a strong La Niña event developed by hurricane season. History appears to be repeating itself, and I predict the emergence of La Niña by July. Since La Niña events tend to bring lower amounts of wind shear to the tropical Atlantic, we can expect a much more active Atlantic hurricane season than usual in 2010. Since 2010 is similar to 1998 in the behavior of the El Niño/La Niña cycle, it is possible that this year's hurricane season could resemble the 1998 Atlantic hurricane season. That year had about 40% above-average activity, with 14 named storms, 10 hurricanes, and 3 intense hurricanes. The season was relatively late-starting, with only one named storm occurring before August 20. Once the season got going, six named storms affected the Gulf of Mexico, including two hurricanes, Earl and Georges, that passed directly over the location of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Figure 2. Tracks of all named storms for the 1998 Atlantic hurricane season.

Figure 3. Typical regional weather anomalies observed during June - August when La Niña conditions are present. The Caribbean tends to be cloudier and wetter than average, but there is typically little change to temperature and precipitations patterns over North America. Image credit: NOAA Climate Prediction Center.

Oil spill update
Light east, southeast, or south winds of 5 - 15 knots will blow today through Saturday, according to the latest marine forecast from NOAA. These winds will keep oil near the beaches of Alabama, Mississippi, and the extreme western Florida Panhandle, according to the latest trajectory forecasts from NOAA and the State of Louisiana. The latest ocean current forecasts from the NOAA HYCOM model are not predicting eastward-moving ocean currents along the Florida Panhandle coast this week, and it is unlikely that surface oil will affect areas of Florida east of Fort Walton Beach. Long range surface wind forecasts from the GFS model for the period 8 - 14 days from now show a southeasterly wind regime, which would prevent any further progress of the oil eastwards along the Florida Panhandle, and would tend to bring significant amounts of oil back to the shores of eastern Louisiana next week. If you spot oil, send in your report to http://www.gulfcoastspill.com/, whose mission is to help the Gulf Coast recovery by creating a daily record of the oil spill.

Figure 4. The oil spill on June 6, 2010 at 8:32pm EDT, as seen by Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) imagery from the Italian Cosmo-SkyMed (COnstellation of small Satellites for Mediterranean basin Observation) satellite. A large region of oil was a few miles offshore of Pensacola, Florida. Image credit: University of Miami Center for Southeastern Tropical Advanced Remote Sensing, Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

Oil spill resources
My post, What a hurricane would do the Deepwater Horizon oil spill
NOAA's fact sheet on Hurricanes and the Oil Spill
My post on the Southwest Florida "Forbidden Zone" where surface oil will rarely go
My post on what oil might do to a hurricane
Oil trajectory forecasts from NOAA
Gulf Oil Blog from the UGA Department of Marine Sciences
Oil Spill Academic Task Force
University of South Florida Ocean Circulation Group oil spill forecasts
Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) imagery from the University of Miami

"Hurricane Haven" airing again this afternoon
The tropical Atlantic is quiet right now, with no models predicting tropical cyclone development over the next seven days. I'll talk about all this nothingness on my live Internet radio show, "Hurricane Haven", at 4pm EDT today. Listeners will be able to call in and ask questions. The call in number is 415-983-2634, or you can post a question in the comments area on Shaun Tanner's blog. Some topics I'll cover on the show:

1) What's going on in the tropics right now--is this typical?
2) New advancements in hurricane science presented at this month's AMS Conference on Hurricanes and Tropical Meteorology last month

Today's show, which will probably be just 1/2 hour, will be at http://www.wunderground.com/wxradio/wubroadcast.h tml. The show will be recorded and stored as a podcast, as last week's show was.

I may take a break from blogging Wednesday, as I've got some catching up to do on other duties.

Jeff Masters

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