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. ufolou.com

    Beam me up, Scotty!

    January 14, 2011 at 12:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      I'm sorry Cpt Kirk, but Scotty is no longer with us.

      January 14, 2011 at 2:21 pm | Report abuse |
  2. conoclast

    A lot of folks here on the blogs seem absolutely COMMITTED to denying the climate crisis, as if it were some grand global hoax that only they see the truth of. Burger-flippers and unemployed laborers, all in lockstep denial of the life's-work of a thousand climate scientists with advanced degrees: my my! A closed mind is the same thing as being committed to staying ignorant; is this what we've come to?

    January 14, 2011 at 12:21 pm | Report abuse |
  3. looknorth

    Look North in Gakona Alaska , its called HAARP its all over the internet ,YOU TUBE, It's a top secret project of the US for the last 20 years ,ago about the same time that " Global Warming " started. Its Electromagnetic Radio Waves That can create weather modification, rain, snow, earthquakes, and alot of bizzare weather that the world has been experiencing, the unfortunate part is there is no reset button on HAARP to fix Mother Nature. This if you do your homework you will also find HAARP revelant to the dead animals and fish around the world, believe it or not in the same countrys as the bad weather, It's time to rule out coincidence. HAARP....HAARP....HAARP

    January 14, 2011 at 12:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Adam

      Top Secret, eh? Must not be too secret. LOL.

      January 14, 2011 at 1:42 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Kevin

    Another reason is, of course, man-made climate change and global warming. 2010 was tied for the warmest year on record, and it was also the wettest year on record. Every year in the 2000s was warmer than the average temperature of the 1990s, every year in the 1990s was warmer than the average temperature of the 1980s, etc. It is indisputable that the Earh is warming.

    It is also indisputable that CO2 levels have risen significantly, due to man-made activity. Climatologists have found a very definite link between CO2 (and other greenhouse gases) and a warmer temperature. That's the reason Venus is 800 degrees and not Earth-like...it's atmosphere is nearly entirely CO2.

    So let's recap. CO2 concentrations have increased significantly due to manmade activity, increased CO2 leads to a higher temperature, the Earth has warmed considerably since we started keeping records a century ago, the Earth has warmed considerably in the past couples of decades and years, and a warmer temperature will likely lead to more extreme weather events, localized drought, rainstorms, more snowfall in the winter, and an overall planetary increase in moisture, ALL OF WICH HAVE BEEN OBSERVED.

    The science is almost completely indisputable. It's about time we recognize that and start to take action before it's too late.

    January 14, 2011 at 12:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Amercaneedsrealists

      I can find a thousand scientists who say global warming is not happening. Do some research about CO2; it is a poor conducter of heat, actually water vapor is the number one green house gas. You have to read more than just what the media wants you too to get the entire picture. According to many scientists the jury is still out on global warming. Many graphs used leave out data that does not suport thier "facts". It is about the money as it is with most things. Many people stand to profit off of global warming so they try to exploit the people.

      January 14, 2011 at 12:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Yeah right

      1,000 scientist that say otherwise? Really? BS. Your're just another one those trys for some reason I don't know why to mislead people. Human are the leading contributor to Global warming and this has been recognized my the majority of scientists in that field so stfu and sit down!

      January 14, 2011 at 1:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Paul

      So, it's water vapor that's responsible for Venus being so hot?

      January 14, 2011 at 2:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • truthseeker07

      Kevin, you are correct but also what's going on is Geoengineering. Check out the HAARP project and it's affect on the environment- weather, birds, fish. Man is slicing holes in the Ionosphere and really screwing this planet up. It's scary to see what's really going on.

      January 14, 2011 at 3:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Knowledge

      THANK YOU Truthseeker07... you are getting closer to the TRUTH!!! It so painfully obvious, and everyone is so blind 🙁

      January 16, 2011 at 9:53 am | Report abuse |
  5. Ituri

    This weather is hardly weird. This has all happened before, time and again. Thankfully this guy is able to see the natural cycle and process of this weather, instead of just using the end-all-be-all excuse of "humans did it the world is ending its global warming" that every PC enviro-junkie seems to use for every tornado and snowstorm these days.

    January 14, 2011 at 12:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bruce H

      There is simply too little historical data to make accurate predictions.
      If we are, indeed, in a period of unprecedented global warming, that trend will reveal itself over time in a way that will be not open to question.
      Our present quandary is if anything we can do now can alter the course of events that may already be set in motion and if we can, what do we do?

      January 14, 2011 at 12:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • sambuca

      I agree with Ituri and others that weather is cyclic. Warm and cold periods come and go. With the short time we have been keeping records we probably have not been able to find the last time we had a warming spell. Greenland got its name because of the green grass that used to grow there. At that same time, Chicago was under a mile of ice.

      January 14, 2011 at 2:59 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Bruce H

    Without sophisticated ocean temperature and currents measuring that we have now, obtaining historical data on these is difficult, so whether this current situation has occurred before and is therefore within normal range of climate variation or is unique and possibly due to global warming is open to debate as the data are inconclusive.

    January 14, 2011 at 12:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • YetAnotherBob

      While I am more of a Climate Doubter than a Believer, I do have to question some of your assertions.

      Geologically, Earth's climate variations are quite extreme, from a modern prospective. During the pre-cambrian period, there were several times when the entire planet froze over. Look up "snowball earth" on wikipedia if you want to find more. At several other times, like prior to the last couple of Ice Ages, there is not evidence for ANY polar ice. See the mid Eocene climactic optimum for instance. we are actually in a long term warming period on this scale, and have been for the last 40,000 years.

      I am a doubter because I have seen too much playing fast and loose with facts by those who seem to make AGW a religion. Unfortunatly, I am not a denier because I have also see the same fast and loose tactics used by the deniers.

      The result is that I just don't know. That may be the only rational stance to take right now.

      I have noted that there is a lot of rubbish being posted by both sides on this site.Some examples:

      There is no Climate Change. FACT: Climate is always changing. It always has, and it always will.

      CO2 is responsible for Climate Change. FACT: "Greenhouse gasses" are a reference to the fact that different gasses and other compounds afect the passage of heat from the surface of the Earth out to Space. different gasses have more or less effect. the greatest effect happens around the infrared wavelengths that correspond to temperatures found on the surface, and the relative concentrations in the atmosphere.So, while refrigerants like freon (which is banned in the US, but still used (and therefore released) in Latin America) reflect or restrict around 1000 times more heat flow than CO2, there is more than 1000 times the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere than freon, therefore, the contribution to warming from freon is less than that from CO2. However, for Methane and Water vapor, both have both more effect and higher concnetration than CO2. Dust and some gasses on the other hand can increase the cooling effect. All of these operate on both a global and local level.

      It's actually a very complicated topic.

      CO2 is responsible for the high temperatures on Venus. FACT: The surface of Venus is much hotter on the surface than the Earth is. The atmosphere is close to 100 times thicker at the surface. Venus also receives close to twice the solar radiation level that Earth does. However, scientists do not know exactly how much the atmosphere there warms the planet. If the earth were to receive twice the solar flux it currently does, temperatures would go up. The current average temperature inof earth is a little above freezing, say, 273 K. if that were allowed to double due to higher solar flux, then the temperature would be near twice that (it is not really linear), or about 273 C at the earths surface. Add in the extra atmosphere, and the resulting temperature climbs up to closer to 700 C. the resulting difference of about 100 C is consistant with the observed water vapor and sulfide compounds in the atmosphere of Venus. CO2 thus does not seem to be a major warmer for Venus. All of this is still tentative. Venus deserves to get a lot more study. There is also apparently a major vulcanism factor at work there. We will know more in 20 year or so about Venus.

      Sorry this has gotten so wordy, but simple answer to complicated questions are always wrong. For both sides.

      January 14, 2011 at 4:33 pm | Report abuse |
  7. kstatix

    That has got to be the ugliest graphic ever. Get a better one, seriously. It looks like someone used MS Paint to draw that.

    January 14, 2011 at 12:27 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Linda

    I wonder if it is really bizarre weather at all or just fluctuations that occur. We need to remember that normal isn't normal at all – it's just average.

    January 14, 2011 at 12:32 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Alf

    It's global warming, didn't you see the movie?????????

    January 14, 2011 at 12:32 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Alf

    Al Gore, please help us.......

    January 14, 2011 at 12:33 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Keksi

    Scientists are like Nostradamus,they predict stuff after it happens.Now they are telling us its cold after we figured it out ourselves.
    Seagulls are more accurate then "scientists",since they predict cold better then they do.

    And who is causing La Nina effect? HAARP?

    January 14, 2011 at 12:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kevin

      That is how science works! They make observations, form hypotheses, test them and look for data that supports them, and if it doesn't, they formulate a new hypothesis, and if they does support what their hypothesis, it becomes a theory and they begin to use that theory to predict future events and understand the world around us.

      Science doesn't rely on blind faith and dogmatism, like so many here, apparently.

      January 14, 2011 at 12:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Keksi

      What you just explained is "faith",there is NOTHING scientific if you cant prove it.Theory is just scientific word for "faith".

      January 14, 2011 at 12:48 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Dave

    Has anyone checked with Al Gore lately to get the facts on the weather?

    January 14, 2011 at 12:40 pm | Report abuse |
  13. cavemanstyle

    The donut shops suck lately.. they don't even make them fresh at their place of business anymore, they get them shipped in.. so when they run out.. tooo bad, they're out for the whole day.

    January 14, 2011 at 12:51 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Joe D

    WOW! Lots of people hating on religion. I'm not a religious person, but you people sound ridiculous. Allow people to have an opinion and their beliefs without crapping all over them. This is why the religious hate athiests, and vice versa.

    January 14, 2011 at 12:52 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Name*kelly smith

    Its amazing to read these articles written by such educated people! I am intrigued by all the things they know and how in depth they know it!

    January 14, 2011 at 12:53 pm | Report abuse |
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