Support for LAist comes from
Made of L.A.
Stay Connected

Share This

Climate and Environment

Current Weather Clouding Your Outlook? Imagine What A Strong El Niño Would Mean To Us

A picture of Earth taken by a satellite, identifying the temperature of water around the world with bands of reg around the equator, large swathes of green and areas of blue and purple
A band of warmer ocean water observed along the equator by the Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich satellite on April 24.
(Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Our June member drive is live: protect this resource!
Right now, we need your help during our short June member drive to keep the local news you read here every day going. This has been a challenging year, but with your help, we can get one step closer to closing our budget gap. Today, put a dollar value on the trustworthy reporting you rely on all year long. We can't hold those in power accountable and uplift voices from the community without your partnership.

It looks like after three years of La Niña, there’s a 90% chance we’re going to have to contend with El Niño later this year. And a 50% chance that it’ll be a particularly strong one.

Its arrival is in part indicated by warming waters in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific, which NASA’s Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich satellite picked up over the past few months.

Along with those warming waters, the climate pattern is associated with weakening trade winds, and impacts to atmospheric circulation, which can have all sorts of influences on weather patterns around the world.

(If you're wondering how this all fits in with Typhoon Mawar, the Category 4 cyclone that lashed Guam and could be headed for the Philippines ... it doesn't. The predicted El Niño has yet to start. Still, the National Weather Service warns that El Niño could increase the risk of stronger tropical cyclones slamming into Micronesia.)

Support for LAist comes from

Understanding climate patterns

El Niño vs. La Niña
  • The climate patterns known as El Niño and La Niña can have substantial impacts on weather in California. They tend to develop some time around March, with one or the other coming along every three to five years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

  • But what's the difference between them? Here are the basics:

  • El Niño

    • Tends to last 9-12 months
    • Occurs when trade winds weaken, and waters in the eastern and central equatorial Pacific warm
    • Can result in wetter weather in Southern California and drier weather further north
  • La Niña

    • Can last 1-3 years
    • Indicated by cooling waters in equatorial Pacific
    • Occurs when strong trade winds build, and waters in the eastern and central equatorial Pacific cool.
    • Can result in drier weather in SoCal and wetter weather further north.

What it means for California

The most sizable impacts from El Niño are generally observed here during the late fall and winter months.

An arrow moving left to right indicates a low jet stream across the southern U.S. with a band of wet weather in the southwest, drive weather over much of the south and midwest and warm weather over the plains and northwest.
A look at an El Niño weather pattern.
(Courtesy NOAA)

In the central and southern parts of California, it could mean an increased likelihood of cool and wet weather, as the jet stream that normally brings precipitation to the West Coast can shift south, pushing storms towards us instead of Washington and Oregon. This could potentially mean great news for snow in the southern Sierra Nevada.

Impacts can be more pronounced when the climate pattern is strong. In that case, we could see the cool and wet weather creep further north.

That said, there's no guarantee that next winter will be wet.

“El Niño basically shifts the probability or likelihood of certain types of events,” said Karen McKinnon, professor of statistics and the environment at UCLA. “But it’s not deterministic.”

Support for LAist comes from

Weather and climate are quite complicated, and all sorts of events like wildfires in Australia, can have sizable impacts we — and our models — don’t always anticipate.

What El Niño generally means for everyone else

Much of the southern U.S. could see wetter conditions as well. The northwestern U.S. and parts of the midwest could tend towards drier weather.

A map of earth where the impacts of El Niño are detailed on different continents.
A map detailing the potential impacts of El Niño from December through February.
(Courtesy NOAA)

El Niño is associated with drier conditions in parts of Australia, Southeast Asia and Africa.

Globally, El Niño tends to push temperatures higher than normal as more of the heat that’s in the Earth’s system moves from the ocean to the atmosphere. Add to that the extreme warming we're already seeing as a result of climate change, and there's a 98% chance that one of the next five years will be the hottest on record for the globe, according to the World Meteorological Organization.

About our gray skies

That Southern California you might be missing has fallen victim to May Gray and June Gloom. The phenomena marks the transition from cool winter weather to scorching summer temperatures.

A graphic shows the state of California with arrows pointing downward alongt he coast and and details on how the marine later traps cool, moist air near the surface and produces fog and gray conditions.
(Courtesy NWS)

What do you want to know about fires, earthquakes, climate change or any science-related topics?
Jacob Margolis helps Southern Californians understand the science shaping our imperfect paradise and gets us prepared for what’s next.

Most Read