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Our El Ni?o winter could make way for a La Ni?a summer

The sun shines behind clouds over a wet outdoor basketball court.
The sun breaks through storm clouds at Riverside’s Ryan Bonaminio Park.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
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Good morning. It’s Monday, Feb. 12. Here’s what you need to know to start your day.

Now: El Ni?o. Later: La Ni?a?

The powerful El Ni?o pattern that brought wet weather and deadly storms to California this winter may finally be weakening, forecasters have said. But our weather weirdness could get even weirder later this year.

Forecasters at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say the odds are increasing that La Ni?a will develop in the Pacific sometime this summer. The weather pattern is associated with cooler, drier conditions.

La Ni?a tends to follow El Ni?o

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It all starts in the tropical Pacific, where winds pushing hot water toward Asia cause the jet stream over North America to shift north. That means less moisture, and the moisture that does come arrives in the Pacific Northwest, more than in California.

“Even though forecasts made through the spring season tend to be less reliable, there is a historical tendency for La Ni?a to follow strong El Ni?o events,” forecasters wrote in an advisory last week.

Climate change is making weather whiplash more extreme

As The Times’ Hayley Smith reported, La Ni?a’s last visit to the Golden state lasted a rare three years straight (from 2020 to 2023).

That weather pattern “was a notable factor in California’s most recent drought, which saw unprecedented water restrictions, shriveling groundwater supplies and record-low levels on the Colorado River,” Hayley wrote. “Should the latest forecast manifest, the West Coast could once again experience a rapid swing from precipitation to dryness — a pattern sometimes referred to as ‘weather whiplash’ that is becoming increasingly common in a warming world.”

Another key factor: human-caused climate change, which, as NOAA climate scientist Michelle L’Heureux told Hayley, has a separate but noticeable effect on the weather in California and around the planet.

“There’s always going to be the nudging provided by El Ni?o and La Ni?a, but there’s also going to be the nudging provided by climate change,” she said.

Officials were already worried about drought

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The possible return of La Ni?a — and the drier conditions it could bring — comes as state officials have voiced concerns about a “snow drought” developing this water year. We’re getting rain, but not enough of it is turning into snow at higher elevations, thanks in part to warm conditions brought on by El Ni?o. The latest storms helped, but the Sierra snowpack is still below average, according to recent measurements.

Without snowpack to melt in spring and summer, reservoirs cannot be replenished.

Hydroclimatologist Peter Gleick has said the next drought is always a matter of when — not if — and California should prepare accordingly.

If we can’t count on snow, water managers will need to get better at capturing rain and stormwater to make sure the wet times can get us through the dry.

“We need to be accelerating and expanding conservation and efficiency policies,” Gleick explained last April. “It’s precisely in the wet years, when we have a little breathing room, that we ought to be doing more to prepare for the dry years that we know are increasingly frequent.”

You can read more from Hayley on the likelihood of La Ni?a, plus her recent story on stormwater capture efforts in Los Angeles.

Today’s top stories

A man walks through a brush-filled area on snow-covered ground.
Lincoln County Commissioner Varlin Bigbee walks through dense pinyon-juniper woodlands that may be harvested to make methanol, an additive used to reduce greenhouse gas emissions of container ships at Los Angeles ports.
(Louis Sahagun / Los Angeles Times)

Climate and environment

Politics

Crime and courts

Superbowl LVIII

More big stories

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Commentary and opinions

Today’s great reads

A women sits at a table outside with numerous paper documents spread out.
Gardena resident Maria Macias filed a petition asking the Los Angeles County CARE Court to provide a treatment plan for her husband, who has schizophrenia. More than two months later, she has received only two emails from the court.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

She hopes CARE Court will save her husband. Two months in, she’s waiting for answers. Gardena resident Maria Macias hopes the state’s new CARE Court will save her husband, who struggles with mental illness and substance abuse. “You go to the court, you submit the paperwork they ask for, and there is no communication, no explanation for what’s going on,” she told The Times’ Thomas Curwen. “You’re left to wonder what more you can do.”


How can we make this newsletter more useful? Send comments to essentialcalifornia@latimes.com.


For your downtime

A prehistoric woman stands her ground.
Safia Oakley-Green in “Out of Darkness.”
(Laura Radford / Bleecker Street)
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Going out

Staying in

And finally ... a great photo

Show us your favorite place in California! Send us photos you have taken of spots in California that are special — natural or human-made — and tell us why they’re important to you.

A boat floats near bay front homes with a view of snowy mountains in the distance.
A sunset cruise through Huntington Harbour on Feb. 10, with a view of the San Gabriel Mountains.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Today’s great photo is from Times staff photographer Allen J. Schaben, who captured the visually appealing aftermath of the latest SoCal storms: snowcapped mountains, a reminder that, yes, we do have winter! ??

Check out more great snow pics from Times photographers.

Have a great day, from the Essential California team

Ryan Fonseca, reporter
Karim Doumar, head of newsletters

Check our top stories, topics and the latest articles on latimes.com.

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