La Niña is gone. What does that mean for Florida and hurricane season?

La Niña has historically increased tropical activity in the Atlantic while its weather-extreme counterpart, El Niño, does the opposite.
La Niña has finally come to an end after three years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Fishing boats pushed onto land from Hurricane Ian are shown on Dec. 2 in Fort Myers Beach.
La Niña has finally come to an end after three years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Fishing boats pushed onto land from Hurricane Ian are shown on Dec. 2 in Fort Myers Beach. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published March 10, 2023|Updated March 10, 2023

La Niña, a weather phenomenon that has historically increased tropical activity, is no more.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced in its latest advisory from the Climate Prediction Center this week that La Niña is gone, and the globe is now experiencing neutral conditions — neither La Niña nor its weather extreme counterpart, El Niño.

This change is welcome for Floridians who cringe at the mere mention of a tropical storm or hurricane. The past three years have been, in a word, tiresome.

The Atlantic produced 65 named storms in the past three years — 30 storms in 2020 (the most in recorded history), 21 in 2021 (the third-most in recorded history) and 14 in 2022.

Last year was an average hurricane season in terms of named storms, however the year became one of the deadliest and costliest in modern history because of Hurricane Ian, a monster storm that rocked Southwest Florida.

Each of these years occurred under the watchful eye of La Niña.

Here is a look ahead at what these new conditions mean for Florida and the fast-approaching hurricane season, which starts June 1.

We’re in ENSO-neutral. What does that mean?

The El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) climate pattern has three stages: La Niña, El Niño and ENSO-neutral, according to Alex DesRosiers, a doctoral candidate in Colorado State University’s Atmospheric Science Department.

The cycle refers to the year-to-year changes in sea surface temperatures that affect the weather across the globe, according to the agency.

La Niña is the colder part of the cycle while El Niño is the opposite, DesRosiers said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.

This particular La Niña, which started in September 2020, was unusual and one of the longest on record. It took a brief break in 2021 but came roaring back with record intensity.

ENSO-neutral, what the globe is experiencing now, is a period when we are in neither an El Niño nor La Niña. These are typically times of transition between the two phenomena, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. During this time, ocean temperatures, tropical rainfall and atmospheric winds over the Pacific Ocean are near the long-term average, according to the agency.

How does all this affect our climate?

El Niño causes the northern United States to be drier and warmer, and the Southeast to be wetter. La Niña periods lead to heavier rains in the Pacific Northwest and drought in the southern United States. La Niña winters tend to be warmer than normal in the South and cooler in the North, the agency said.

In a neutral period, it’s possible to see aspects of both La Niña and El Niño, said Rodney Wynn, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Tampa Bay Office.

In a seasonal outlook released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in mid-February, forecasters predicted about a 50 to 60% chance of temperatures being above normal and a 50 to 60% chance of rain being below normal in most of Florida from March to May.

These weather patterns also affect hurricane seasons. El Niño typically favors more activity in the central and eastern Pacific, while it suppresses activity in the Atlantic, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said. La Niña is the opposite.

When there’s a La Niña, there are more storms in the Atlantic during hurricane season because it removes conditions that suppress storm formation. Neutral or El Niño conditions make it harder for storms to get going, but not impossible, scientists said.

Over the last three years, the U.S. has been hit by 14 hurricanes and tropical storms that caused $1 billion or more in damage each, totaling $252 billion in costs, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration economist and meteorologist Adam Smith. La Niña and people building in harm’s way were factors, he said.

What about Florida?

Forecasters are confident that neutral conditions will last through the spring, DesRosiers said.

The agency’s climate models predict that El Niño will make an appearance sometime later this year. If that happens, Florida would be in for cooler and rainier conditions, especially in the winter, DesRosiers said.

However, just when El Niño will pick up is trickier to forecast. In the spring, models have a difficult time forecasting. So for now, forecasters are uncertain when El Niño will begin.

“It’s harder to predict the start or end of an event than to predict an event that is already occurring,” according to an agency article discussing spring forecasting.

The latest forecast, however, gives El Niño a 61% chance of popping up during the hurricane season’s peak from August to October, according to a tweet by Philip Klotzbach, a meteorologist at Colorado State University.

El Niño would bring more wet weather to our area, said Wynn, which disrupts the tropical season, he said.

“So when we get these weather systems farther to the south, that brings increasing shear, so that’ll inhibit the development of tropical storms,” Wynn said.

DesRosiers said a neutral phase can still bring a busy hurricane season, like in 2017, when Hurricane Irma hit Florida.

And though we can’t count on it, DesRosiers said Floridians should be encouraged to have El Niño in the forecast.

Information from The Associated Press contributed to this report.