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Southwest Life Health And the West is History Community Travel

Q&A: La Nina’s back and it's not good for parts of the dry West

County of Santa Barbara Fire Department firefighters extinguish a roadside fire Oct. 13 next to train tracks off of the U.S. 101 highway in Goleta, Calif. On Oct. 14, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that a La Niña has formed, which can be bad news for parts of the parched West. It also could mean a more active Atlantic hurricane season. (Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press)

For the second consecutive year, the world heads into a new La Niña weather event. This would tend to dry out parts of an already parched and fiery American West and boost an already busy Atlantic hurricane season.

Just five months after the end of a La Niña that started in September 2020, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced a new cooling of the Pacific is underway.

La Niña’s natural cooling of parts of the Pacific is the flip side of a warmer El Niño pattern and sets in motion changes to the world’s weather for months and sometimes years. But the changes vary from place to place and aren’t certainties, just tendencies.

La Niñas tend to cause more agricultural and drought damage to the United States than El Niños and neutral conditions, according to a 1999 study. That study found La Niñas in general cause $2.2 billion to $6.5 billion in damage to the U.S. agriculture.

How long and how strong will it be?

There’s a 57% chance this will be a moderate La Niña and only 15% that it will be strong, said Mike Halpert, deputy director of NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. He said it is unlikely to be as strong as last year’s because the second year of back-to-back La Niñas usually doesn’t quite measure up to the first.

This La Niña is expected to stretch through spring, Halpert said.

What does it mean for the West?

For the entire southern one-third of the country and especially the Southwest, a La Niña often means drier and warmer weather. The West has been experiencing a two decade-plus megadrought that’s worsened the last couple of years.

But for the Northwest – Washington, Oregon, maybe parts of Idaho and Montana – La Niña means a good chance rain and drought relief, Halpert said.

“Good for them, probably not so good for central, southern California,” Halpert said.

The Ohio Valley and Northern Plains could be wetter and cooler. La Niña winters also tend to shift snowstorms more northerly in winter while places like the mid-Atlantic often don’t get blockbuster snowstorms.

What about the Atlantic hurricane season?

During last year’s La Niña, the Atlantic set a record with 30 named storms. This year, without La Niña, the season has still been busier than normal with 20 named storms and only one name left unused on the primary storm name list: Wanda.

The last couple weeks have been quiet but “I expect it to pick up again,” Halpert said. “Just because it’s quiet now, it doesn’t mean we won’t still see more storms as we get later into October and even into November.”

La Niñas tend to make Atlantic seasons more active because one key ingredient in formation of storms is winds near the top of them. An El Niño triggers more crosswinds that decapitate storms, while a La Niña has fewer crosswinds, allowing storms to develop and grow.

What about the rest of the world?

Much of both southeast Asia and northern Australia are wetter in La Niña – and that’s already apparent in Indonesia, Halpert said. Central Africa and southeast China tend to be drier.

Expect it to be cooler in western Canada, southern Alaska, Japan, the Korean peninsula, western Africa and southeastern Brazil.