Forecaster: Two phenomena responsible for world's bizarre weather
A graphic outlining sea temperature anomalies the first week in January shows drops in the Pacific as air temperatures rise between the U.S. and Europe (continents in gray). La Niña and the North Atlantic Oscillation are to blame, an expert says.
January 13th, 2011
03:35 PM ET

Forecaster: Two phenomena responsible for world's bizarre weather

The catastrophic weather events taking place across the globe – from Brazil’s and Australia’s flooding to the Eastern United States’ heavy snowfall – have two likely explanations.

Tony Barnston, lead forecaster at Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society, said two phenomena – La Niña and the North Atlantic Oscillation – are likely responsible for the patterns we’re seeing.

Though La Niña is different every time, it can be simply defined as a drop in water temperature in the eastern and central tropical Pacific Ocean. This particular La Niña appeared in July, Barnston said, and will last through spring.

During La Niña, there is less rainfall in the tropical Pacific and a horseshoe pattern of warm water typically forms in the North Pacific, the coast of Southeast Asia and the seas around Indonesia and Australia (check out the graphic above).

In this case, though, “the whole globe looks to be compensating,” Barnston said, noting that it’s difficult to determine if  La Niña spawns individual weather events.

While Southeast Asia and Australia can typically expect warmer oceans and more rainfall during La Niña, the affected area stretches farther west this year and includes Sri Lanka and the southern tip of India, Barnston said.

There is presently a massive rescue operation under way in Sri Lanka to save victims of flooding that has already killed at least 13 people. Floods have killed another 40 people in the Philippines, and Australia has been inundated with deadly flooding reportedly estimated to cover an area the size of France and Germany combined. To the east of La Niña, South America's north coast has been slammed with rain, and hundreds have been killed in Brazil's flooding and mudslides.

La Niña usually means warmer temperatures in the United States, particularly the Southeast, but this year the North Atlantic Oscillation is trumping La Niña.

Since November, we have been in the negative phase of the North Atlantic Oscillation, Barnston said, meaning that air temperatures between the eastern U.S. and Europe will drop. This causes temperatures to rise in places like northeast Canada, Greenland and Iceland, as the mercury drops on thermometers in the eastern U.S.

Weather experts call it a see-saw pattern, and it will eventually affect water temperatures, though that’s a secondary effect, Barnston said.

So while La Niña would normally mean dryer, warmer weather for folks in the southern United States, “the North Atlantic Oscillation has superseded the La Niña” this year, bringing El Niño-like winter temperatures and snow to the Southeast, he said.

CNN meteorologists reported earlier this week that snow was present in every U.S. state but Florida.

Though La Nina typically lasts until April or May, the North Atlantic Oscillation can move from a negative to positive phase mid-winter. Barnston said the Southeast “could be warmer and dryer than normal later this year if the North Atlantic Oscillation ceases and desists.”

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Filed under: Australia • Brazil • India • Indonesia • Philippines • Sri Lanka • Tropical weather • U.S. • Weather • Winter weather
soundoff (963 Responses)
  1. ChrisFarley

    I am La Nino! Which is spanish for the nino..

    January 13, 2011 at 3:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • grg

      You mean "el Niño" = the boy, and "la Niña" = the girl.

      January 13, 2011 at 6:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • evil

      grg, He's a trans-gender storm

      January 13, 2011 at 6:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • SUPERSTAR

      Umm...he's talking about the SNL skit with Chris Farley. WOW!

      January 13, 2011 at 7:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • mark in nyc

      so it's the illegals that are causing the disruptive weather.

      January 13, 2011 at 8:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • James

      el Nino: the little boy
      la Nina: the little girl

      toddlers hope you see the reference to rain

      January 13, 2011 at 9:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Manic Messiah HE HE HA HA

      OOOPs Chris some of them just did not get it.

      January 14, 2011 at 7:59 am | Report abuse |
  2. bambam

    I hope he's right can't wait for warmer and dryer been snowed in for a week now

    January 13, 2011 at 4:25 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Kiarra Laws

    Does this mean the earth is reversing its axis?

    January 13, 2011 at 4:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Michael

      Nope, you'll know that'll happen when everyone is burned alive by solar radiation 🙂

      January 13, 2011 at 6:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • gremlin

      Actually, I think the poles do reverse occasionally. Every few hundred thousand years. I don't think the effect is catastrophic. I'm too lazy to look it up right now though, so I may be thinking of something else.

      January 13, 2011 at 6:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • David

      The poles are constantly on the move. CNN actually had a story earlier this week about an airport closing a run way for re-designation which are based off North-South compass readings. I believe the earth switches north and south poles every few hundred years. It may be longer or shorter I am unsure.

      January 13, 2011 at 7:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • David

      Also @ Micheal the dramatic North-South shift destroying life is a theory of an an event that could potentially happen not will happen. It's an event that has been played up by doom sayers in conjecture with 2012. More then likely this will never happen and if it does rather then destroying life it will trigger seismic activity and flooding. Which while not what I would call good are also not the end of the world.

      January 13, 2011 at 7:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • bag juicer

      No it means your stupid

      January 13, 2011 at 7:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • kerry

      Santa has to change his address every 100,000 years or so. It would get REALLY annoying, uh, except that he hasn't had to do it yet since he only got his job 2,000 years ago, so nevermind this post, then.

      January 13, 2011 at 7:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • SarahLV

      @David – Actually, it's not the poles that are reversing currently. It's the magnetic poles, which not the geological poles, but the polar extremes where the Earth's magnetic field entry/exit points are. Magnetic North is where compasses point to, and how airports place their runways.

      But yes, the poles are always in a constant state of movement. Granted, the full axis change takes 13,000 years for a half cycle, and another 13,000 years to go back to it's "original" state, so we will never see a polar reversal in our lifetimes.

      January 13, 2011 at 8:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • rohn

      regarding pole shifts: they happen every couple hundred thousand years on average (and one is really overdue), it doesn't cause any massive damage, but it would mess up a lot of modern wireless telecommunications equipment. The thing is that pole shifts take about 5000 years to complete, which means that the effects would be barely noticeable across your entire lifetime.

      January 13, 2011 at 8:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • David

      @SarahLV I don't really think I had to clarify I meant the magnetic poles. Magnetic north moves northwest by about 40 km per year, and that the land distance between poles is 20,014 km. So more like 500 years to shift.

      January 13, 2011 at 9:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nonsense

      Holy misinformation!...the magnetic poles reverse approximately every 500k years. The last was 700k years so we are "overdue". The change is thought to take 10k years to complete. There will be no catastrophic flooding....just some very odd readings on compasses and gps. And as for how it might affect you....face north...ok?...now face south. Feel any different?

      January 13, 2011 at 9:57 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Hanz Pelmanbergen

    Saint Gabriel, pray for us!

    January 13, 2011 at 4:44 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Village Idiot

    yeah what kiarra said...

    January 13, 2011 at 4:53 pm | Report abuse |
  6. blabla

    blablablah. none of your explanations made sense.

    January 13, 2011 at 5:03 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Bob

    Whoogivesasheeyut.

    January 13, 2011 at 5:24 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Wise to the Lies

    What this report so conveniently fails to mention is that the drop in temperature on the USA east coast, Europe and Russia is due to a slowing in the current of the North Atlantic Oscillation which was predicted would occur with the increasing melting of the polar ice, thus bringing less warm water and thus less warming to that region of the world, expect this to worsen in the coming years. On the otherside of the world, global warming is increasing the Pacific ocean temperatures thus causing an intense La Nina. Expect more La Ninas both in frequency and intensity.

    January 13, 2011 at 5:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Wallace

      Wise to the Lies, your post is self-contradictory. I know you're aiming for a Global Warming solution, however the prediction that "...the melting of the polar ice cap fails to bring more warmer water to the region..." ignores the fact that thewarmer water is already in the region, which is what caused melting in the first place. Not to mention, this weather is actually not all that extraordinary at all. What is extraordinary is the spin being put on it these days. The reporting on all the snow seems to take the tone that it's never snowed like this before. Having grown up in upstate NY, I can say for a fact that this winter has not been extraordinary at all. It's just being reported like it is.

      January 13, 2011 at 7:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Arick

      Same in Kentucky. Heavy snow in the winter really isn't remarkable for this area. I remember back in the 90s we had a snow storm drop two feet. Haven't had one like that since then.

      January 13, 2011 at 8:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mark, Toronto

      Entirely agree with Wallace, there is nothing remotely spectacular about this weather that cannot be accounted for by seasonal variation, and the phenomenon put forth in the article; to try to put some sort of doom and gloom or conspiracy spin to this is just irrational and intellectually juvenile.

      January 13, 2011 at 8:53 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Andy

    As long as it keeps snowing on the east coast its all good!

    January 13, 2011 at 5:25 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Saladeen

    The earth is simply cleaning its self be warned

    January 13, 2011 at 5:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Arick

      You aren't one of those loons who believes that the Earth has some sort of sentience are you?

      January 13, 2011 at 8:23 pm | Report abuse |
  11. ling

    Ya know this is pretty cool but it also mean we're gonna have to addapt. Ya know I already noticed this happening, it didn't snow in december at all so now it snows. Let's hope the temp gets colder in the poles!!!

    January 13, 2011 at 5:30 pm | Report abuse |
  12. think snow

    I'm in charge of snow removal ops at a hospital here in jersey and its been a fun time so far. First one was a challenge this year and last. Don't care what the pattern is but I hope it stays.

    January 13, 2011 at 5:38 pm | Report abuse |
  13. paco

    the end of the world is here!! let us prepare!!!

    January 13, 2011 at 5:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Vezalo

      @paco you are embarrassing yourself. You can't really believe that weather is a sign of the end of times. You probably said the same thing on 12-31-99 @ 2359. Go get in your shelter with your ammo and toilet paper. See you on 12-22-12.

      January 13, 2011 at 10:08 pm | Report abuse |
  14. DDDDD

    what about the earthquakes, the birds, the economic problems, the volcanoes, well Just repent to Jesus so you can be safe,......this is a way of keeping us deceived, the devil's tactic of fooling the world, look this year there have been bird and they said it was fireworks, and tainted beef, now this malarkey ...cmon we are not gonna take it, tell the people the truth...JESUS was right 2000yr ago. why didnt we never hear of 2012 in 1999 before 2000, JESUS is the way to LIFE

    January 13, 2011 at 5:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Waymon

      I agree ;D

      January 13, 2011 at 6:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • VitruvianMn

      You should go live in a cave

      January 13, 2011 at 6:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Shortcut

      Agreed, it's absolutely the end times... And there is a shortcut to heaven! I am leading a group of true believers to it! Abandon all your worldly possessions and begin walking north! It is the way! Don't stop! Continue walking north. When you see white and begin to feel numb, that is the sign that you are close to ascension! Continue forward! Soon you will ascend and can skip the awful days ahead! Leave the world to the ungodly. (maybe leave your keys under the floormat as a sign of charity to those pagans)

      January 13, 2011 at 7:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • MrsFizzy

      Riiiight...because bad things never happened all at once at any other time in history...

      January 13, 2011 at 7:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Arick

      So...Jeebus killed some birds?

      January 13, 2011 at 8:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • DivDawson

      oh no...there have been bird!...RUUUUN!!!

      January 13, 2011 at 9:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ohyayer

      You guys can leave all your worldy posessions to me when you take your "shortcut" to the end. I don't believe in Jesus so I won't be joining you. I am pretty sure that compared to all that our Earth has been though thus far, our little weather changes and bird deaths are nothing. Check out the mini ice age we had in the 1800's... if that happened now you would be beside yourself with end of the world talk.

      PS. I think the seriousniess with which some people take these discussions quite amusing. I usually just read them for the laugh. If you post here often or are engaged in an argument with someone I suggest taking up a real hobby or making some real friends to talk to so you don't have to rant to strangers online. 🙂

      January 13, 2011 at 9:10 pm | Report abuse |
  15. PartisanSheep

    Ahhhhhh!!!!!! OMG!!!!! Run scurry flee!!!!

    January 13, 2011 at 5:51 pm | Report abuse |
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