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El Niño or La Niña? What They Mean and Why They Matter

Graphic: National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration

In the world of oceanography and climatology, the names El Niño and La Niña carry a particularly important meaning that can be complex and difficult to understand for the average person. Defined by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as “complex weather patterns resulting from variations in ocean temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific,” El Niño and La Niña’s weather implications for the Western United States, and the state of Nevada in particular, are equally, if not more complex.

These atmosphere-ocean relationships can have major implications for weather patterns across the globe

Scott King

“These are names that we give to describe certain points in the atmosphere-ocean relationships,” Clair Ketchum, Warning Coordination Meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Elko, Nevada said. “The Pacific Ocean is such a large body of water that it has a huge impact in how our atmosphere behaves. So for the most part, even though it’s way out thousands of miles from Northern and Central Nevada, we can still get affected by it.”

El Niño and La Niña are known to be opposite phases of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle. The El Niño phase represents the warm phase of the atmosphere-ocean relationship, during which the trade winds along the Equatorial Pacific weaken. With less friction between the wind and water, the warmer water that is traditionally pushed to the Western Pacific by those trade winds then oscillates, or swings back, toward Central and South America…

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