So far this winter, the La Niña that has been in place since last fall continues to hold strong. As the graphic from the Bureau of Meteorology in Australia indicates, subsurface temperatures across the tropical Pacific remain much colder than average over a large area. There is a growing region of subsurface warmth beginning to pool in the western Pacific but it lacks a real mechanism to drive it eastward- a so-called westerly wind burst. We typically don’t see those unless there is a significant pressure change across the Pacific and that shows up in the SOI or Southern Oscillation Index. When it is substantially negative, and persistently so, the trade winds often slow or even reverse, allowing the warm water gathering in the western Pacific to migrate eastward.
The latest update from the BOM also points out that long range climate models suggest a gradual warming of the tropical Pacific as the La Niña fades. This means it is likely that we’ll see a return to more average, or neutral ENSO conditions (ENSO stands for El Niño Southern Oscillation) by the time summer arrives in the Northern Hemisphere. There is also the possibility that the warming will continue and a weak El Niño could set in by next fall. I do not see any evidence yet to suggest that a strong El Niño is coming. However, this time of year, it is difficult to predict what will happen several months down the road but the large subsurface cold pool coupled with a fairly strong SOI signal over the past 30 to 90 days tells me that La Niña is going to be the rule for a few more months at least.
Why does any of this matter? Aside from the effects outside of the hurricane season, which are far too detailed to get in to in this post, we typically see a more active hurricane season when El Niño is not present. This is due to the stronger and more numerous instances of wind shear, the change of wind speed and/or direction with height, over the deep tropics. El Niño events promote this negative impact to tropical cyclones where as La Niña events usually do not.
For now, the La Niña pattern will continue but we’ll watch for signs that it is breaking down and then we’ll see how much warming takes place in the tropical Pacific. The end result could have an impact, one way or another, on the upcoming Atlantic hurricane season. I’ll post more about the ENSO state next month.