El Niño vs. La Niña Tug-of-War This Season

13th September 2017 | Meteorologist Chris Tomer

La Niña impacts - ©Meteorologist Chris Tomer

Cooler than normal water in the east-central equatorial Pacific Ocean is called La Niña

Copyright: Meteorologist Chris Tomer

Warmer than normal water in the east-central equatorial Pacific Ocean is called El Niño, and cooler than normal water is called La Niña. We often see year-to-year variations in sea surface temperature, rainfall, air pressure and atmospheric circulation in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. ENSO, or El Niño Southern Oscillation, describes the year-to-year variations between La Niña and El Niño. ENSO-neutral means water temps are "normal" based on long-term averages for the equatorial Pacific Ocean.   

The atmosphere likes to remain in balance. That said, the oscillation back and forth between La Niña and El Niño occurs roughly every 2-7 years. Changes in both global ocean temperatures, pressure patterns and trade winds keep the oscillation going. It's like the atmosphere is in a tug-of-war with the ocean to maintain balance.  

Why is ENSO Important? 

Under ENSO, long-term weather patterns are altered from what's considered "normal." This has impacts on winter snowfall patterns across the United States and Canada. As the oceans interact with the atmosphere, the entire system operates in a feedback loop whereby warmer water produces local atmospheric pressure changes, putting a domino effect into motion. Local atmospheric pressure differences drive a circulation across the equatorial Pacific Ocean, and that drives changes in winds at different altitudes. So, the difference between a La Niña and El Niño can be significant and felt globally. 

The pattern can stay ENSO neutral but will normally start tilting in one direction or another, either toward La Niña or El Niño. The challenge is to figure out which phase will dominate the winter season across the United States. To do that, we use an array of computer models. Historical trends can be important, too, and there are other considerations outside of ENSO that must be examined when putting together a winter forecast.  

See Meteorologist Chris Tomer's 17/18 full ski season forecast

Warmer than normal water in the east-central equatorial Pacific Ocean is called El Niño. - ©Meteorologist Chris Tomer

Warmer than normal water in the east-central equatorial Pacific Ocean is called El Niño.

Copyright: Meteorologist Chris Tomer

Impacts to the United States 

Take a look at the graphics. An El Niño phase will force the average position of the southern jet stream (think storm track) to set up across the southern tier of states. It becomes the dominate player. This means warmer air temperatures and more moisture are escorted in from the Pacific Ocean. The polar jet stream gets pushed north and may dip across the Northeast.  

La Niña does just the opposite. The southern jet stream gets pushed further north and the polar jet stream dips further south. This allows for more frequent cold fronts. Over the long term, this favors the northern tier of states for cooler and wetter than normal conditions. The heaviest winter snowfall will typically be in the northern tier of states. 

ENSO neutral usually favors the long-term average conditions for most places. It typically means the atmosphere is in transition between La Niña and El Niño. Keep in mind that there is an entire spectrum of effects from La Niña and El Niño depending on the exact water temperatures across the equator. In most cases, the stronger the El Niño or La Niña (based on water temperatures) the stronger the effects.   

Impacts to Colorado 

Statistically significant historical patterns point to La Niña delivering above average snowfall to the northern mountains, where El Niño delivers above average snowfall to the southern mountains. Again, there is an entire spectrum of forecasts that fall in between these generalizations depending on the strength of the La Niña or El Niño. 

 

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