The La Niña-to-El Niño Transition: When, Where, How Much?

Meteorologists have been predicting this to be an El Niño year, but what does that mean, and when will it actually happen? At the 2023 Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association’s Annual Convention and Trade Show, Atmospheric Scientist Matt Makens with Makens Weather talked about the transition from La Niña to El Niño.

“There is going to be a transition, but it is not immediate, and everybody is going to have a different impact, and we have simply seen that this year. Eastern Oklahoma started out so wet, and we have seen the pattern kind of just totally flip on the state. And now, the west is actually starting to get some water, too, so that is all part of this transition. And before we can into El Niño, which is coming pretty soon, we’re going to see these kind of hit and miss streaks of moisture kind of spread across the region.”

Looking into 2024 in the Southern Plains, Makens said El Niño is predicted to come early.

“The strength of El Niño is very critical because a weak El Niño versus a strong El Niño changes the complexity around the plains. You get water, or you don’t, and that’s all El Niño, but as we go into early 2024, we are looking at a moderate to strong El Niño. What that does for the winter months is increase our frequency of snow and increases our total of snow, so good moisture outlook there.” 

Makens advises anyone who will be calving in the spring to watch out for cold snaps. The outlook for wheat growers, however, is better.

“Temperature wise, you are going to see that transition throughout the season, getting colder and colder. Anybody with a spring calving situation, you really have to watch the cold snaps because they are going to come through with snow, and we know that’s a bad combo. I mean, the good news is, this is a much better outlook for wheat growers, we got moisture. But yes, you do have to worry about that cold into next spring.” 

If El Niño fades away quickly, Makens said next summer may yield some drier conditions.

“La Niña has been far more frequent and longer lasting versus El Nino, although it can be powerful, they’ve been shorter lived in the last 20-30 years. The long-term picture is these things happen, like I said, on a 20 to 30-year cycle, and we are nearing the end of this current cycle. Once it changes, the next 20 to 30 years would be a wetter phase for us. So, perhaps we are looking at one more La Niña before we see El Niño’s become more frequent.”