'Triple dip' La Niña is on the way. Here's what it means for weather in the US

Doyle Rice
USA TODAY
  • This is the first "triple-dip" La Niña of the century.
  • This La Niña began in September 2020.
  • Both La Niña and El Niño are Spanish language terms.

La Niña just won't go away.

Meteorologists say that for the third straight year, La Niña will persist throughout the winter in the Northern Hemisphere. This is the first "triple dip" La Niña of the century, according to an update from the United Nations' World Meteorological Organization.

This La Niña began in September 2020. 

The La Niña climate pattern is a natural cycle marked by cooler-than-average ocean water in the central Pacific Ocean. It is one of the main drivers of weather in the United States and around the world, especially during late fall, winter and early spring.

It's the opposite to the more well-known El Niño, which occurs when water in the Pacific Ocean is warmer than average. Though this would be the first "triple dip" La Niña this century, it's not unprecedented for the pattern to last more than nine months to a year, which is typical for a La Niña, according to ABC News.

What does La Niña mean for winter in the US?

A typical La Niña winter in the U.S. brings cold and snow to the Northwest and unusually dry conditions to most of the nation's southern tier, according to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center. The Southeast and mid-Atlantic also tend to see warmer-than-average temperatures during a La Niña winter. 

Meanwhile, New England and the Upper Midwest into New York tend to see colder-than-average temperatures, the Weather Channel said.

Climate change also plays a role

The World Meteorological Organization said all naturally occurring climate events now take place in the context of human-induced climate change, which is increasing global temperatures, exacerbating extreme weather and climate, and influencing seasonal rainfall and temperature patterns.

“It is exceptional to have three consecutive years with a La Niña event," said the organization's secretary-general, Petteri Taalas, in a news release. "Its cooling influence is temporarily slowing the rise in global temperatures – but it will not halt or reverse the long-term warming trend.”

Where did the term La Niña come from?

La Niña and El Niño are Spanish language terms: La Niña means "little girl," and El Niño means "little boy," or "Christ child." South American fishermen first noticed periods of unusually warm water in the Pacific Ocean in the 1600s, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said. The full name they used was "El Niño de Navidad" because El Niño typically peaks around December.

The entire natural climate cycle is officially known by climate scientists as El Niño – Southern Oscillation (ENSO), a seesaw dance of warmer and cooler seawater in the central Pacific Ocean.

During La Niña events, trade winds are even stronger than usual, pushing more warm water toward Asia, NOAA said. Off the west coast of the Americas, upwelling increases, which brings cold, nutrient-rich water to the surface.