La Nina helping direct winter storm to Midwest

February 2, 2011 By RANDOLPH E. SCHMID , AP Science Writer
A pedestrian walks along the shore line of Lake Michigan Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2011 in Chicago. A winter blizzard of historic proportions wobbled an otherwise snow-tough Chicago, stranding hundreds of drivers for up to 12 hours overnight on the city's showcase lakeshore thoroughfare and giving many city schoolchildren their first ever snow day. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)

(AP) -- Millions of Americans raised on tales of great storms past now have one of their own to talk about - and something to blame: La Nina.

"Mother Nature has decided to show us what winter is like again," said Mike Halpert, deputy director of the federal Climate Prediction Center.

Following a series of unusually mild winters, 'the last couple of winters have been more like what winter should be," Halpert said Wednesday.

The blizzard of 2011 "will be long remembered" because the snow and very strong winds created whiteout conditions in a wide swath of the country, including heavily populated cities, Louis Uccellini, director of the government's National Centers for Environmental Prediction.

Uccellini, a long-time winter storm expert, said it was following a classic pattern - from the Midwest to the Northeast and redeveloping off the coast.

The monster storm was leaving heavy snow and thick ice from Oklahoma and Missouri to the Great Lakes states and eastward. Chicago recorded one of its highest single-storm snow totals.

So can we blame climate change?

No, says Uccellini, "you can't relate to individual storm systems. Clearly, there have been similar storms in previous decades. As intense as this storm is, it's equivalent to other major storms that they've seen in past decades."

But the La Nina (la NEEN-ya) condition currently affecting the tropical does share some of the blame. And it might be contributing to the floods and storm battering Australia.

La Nina is a periodic cooling of the surface temperatures of the tropical Pacific Ocean, the opposite of the better-known (el NEEN-yo) warming. Both can have significant impacts on weather around the world by changing the movement of winds and high and low pressure systems.

"We are linking the storm tracks to the La Nina pattern which dominates the flow coming off the Pacific," Uccellini explained in a telephone interview. "This follows the pattern we would expect through the Ohio Valley and with heavy precipitation to the Great Lakes."

"The is going where we would expect it, according to La Nina," added Halpert.

The blizzard is following a traditional pattern, unlike several previous storms this winter that moved up the East Coast, hammering the East and South.

Contributing to the snowy season, the North Atlantic Oscillation has shifted into a negative phase, leaving La Nina in full control, Uccellini said.

The North Atlantic Oscillation is a shift in high and low pressure systems. In its positive phase it can force storms to the north, but when it relaxes, as currently, the U.S. East Coast tends to see more cold air and snow.

Its related Arctic Oscillation has also pushed cold weather farther south in the United States than had been expected, explained Halpert.

At the same time, half a world away, Australia is currently facing a major cyclone, and that follows serious flooding in parts of that country.

While one can't say the American blizzard and the Australian cyclone are directly connected, both are affected by La Nina. affects wet it gets in Indonesia and Australia, noted Uccellini.

For the record, the long-term winter forecast issued Oct. 21 by the National Weather Service included:

- Northern Plains: Colder and wetter than average, probably with increased storminess and flooding.

- Southern Plains, Gulf Coast States and Southeast: Warmer and drier than average, worsening drought conditions in these areas.

- Ohio and Tennessee Valleys: Warmer and wetter than average, probably with increased storminess and flooding.

- Northeast and Mid-Atlantic: Equal chances for above, near or below normal temperatures and precipitation. ... If enough cold air and moisture are in place, areas north of the Ohio Valley and into the Northeast could see above average snow.

Explore further: Strengthening La Nina could mean more hurricanes

More information: NOAA:


Related Stories

Study: La Niña might create severe weather

April 17, 2006

U.S. scientists say La Niña-controlled weather patterns have the potential to produce more severe storms, as those recently seen in the Midwest and South.

La Niña Anomaly Could Affect Winter Weather in Colorado

November 19, 2008

( -- A strong La Niña that developed early last winter, only to disappear this summer, is showing signs of life again and could affect our winter weather, said University of Colorado at Boulder and NOAA atmospheric ...

Scientist Forecasts Above Average Mountain Moisture

November 4, 2005

The mountains of Colorado could be in for a wetter-than-average winter this season, according to Klaus Wolter, a CU-Boulder and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist.

La Nina strengthens: WMO

October 11, 2010

The disruptive La Nina weather pattern in the Pacific basin should strengthen over the next four to six months, heralding stronger monsoons and more hurricanes, the UN weather agency said on Monday.

Recommended for you

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Feb 03, 2011
I liked that article. Very well written, comprehensive and informative for the average reader.

Winter is only half over, but anybody care to score the NWS predictions?

1) Correct I think?
2) Wrong I think?
3) Wrong on warmer, but right about storms?
4) Kinda correct I guess, but that was a weak prediction. They basically said "I don't know but if it's colder and wetter then there will be more snow". Duh, really?

So about 50/50 I think? Let's defund them and flip coins from now on. lol. I can certainly give 50/50 results for several million a year. I could even hire all you guys to be my staff. Will that work?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.