The long reign of La Niña may soon be over. According to the latest outlook released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center, there’s an 82% chance that by springtime – sometime between March and May – La Niña will have faded away.
In the spring, La Niña is most likely to be replaced by conditions meteorologists refer to as “ENSO neutral,” which is when neither La Niña nor El Niño is present.
Looking further down the forecast into late summer and early fall and there are signs of something we haven’t seen in years: the return of El Niño.
By the August through October timeframe, there’s about a 50% chance El Niño will take hold. Of course, that means there’s also about a 50% chance it won’t.
NOAA issues an “El Niño watch” when El Niño is possible within the next six months, explained Michelle L’Heureux, a meteorologist with the Climate Prediction Center, and so far, no watch has been issued. The team that monitors ENSO patterns is waiting a bit to see if the probabilities firm up, she said.
“We really do want to see more metrics in support of it before saying El Niño is possible and that we should be alert to it,” L’Heureux said. “But with that said, those probabilities are not nothing. They’re certainly something to keep an eye on and we will.”
Both La Niña and El Niño usually grow strongest in the winter. A strong El Niño winter, if it were to develop, would be the inverse of what we’ve seen the last three years and would likely mean a cold, wet winter for California and the Southern U.S. El Niño usually means a warm, dry winter for the Pacific Northwest and Midwest.
In the near term, L’Heureux emphasized, La Niña is still with us. Its effect was apparent in the Climate Prediction Center’s forecast for February released on Thursday.
For the southern half of the U.S., meteorologists predict a February that is warmer and drier than average – as is typical with La Niña winters. In northern states, it’s the opposite: A colder and wetter February is expected.
If El Niño were to develop later this year, it’s not yet clear how long it would last. It would be a big change from the dominance of La Niña, which has been present practically uninterrupted since the summer of 2020.