National Weather Service United States Department of Commerce

Weather Impacts of ENSO

The Jetstream

Typical average position of the jet stream during El Niño and La Niña

As the position of the warm water along the equator shifts back and forth across the Pacific Ocean, the position where the greatest evaporation of water into the atmosphere also shifts with it. This has a profound effect on the average position of the jet stream which, in turn, effects the storm track.

During El Niño (warm phase of ENSO), the jet stream's position shows a dip in the Eastern Pacific. The stronger the El Niño, the farther east in the Eastern Pacific the dip in the jet stream occurs. Conversely, during La Niña's, this dip in the jet stream shifts west of its normal position toward the Central Pacific.

The position of this dip in the jet stream, called a trough, can have a huge effect on the type of weather experienced in North America.

During the warm episode of ENSO (El Niño) the eastern shift in the trough typically sends the storm track, with huge amounts of tropical moisture, into California, south of its normal position of the Pacific Northwest.

A very strong El Niño will cause the trough to shift further south with the average storm track position moving into Southern California.

During these times, rainfall in California can be significantly above normal, leading to numerous occurrences of flash flood and debris flows. With the storm track shifted south, the Pacific Northwest becomes drier and drier as the tropical moisture is shunted south of the region.

The maps (below) show the regions where the greatest impacts due to the shift in the jet stream as a result of ENSO. The highlighted areas indicate significant changes from normal weather occur. The the magnitude of the change from normal is dependent upon the strength of the El Niño or La Niña.

El Niño effects during December through February
El Niño effects during June through August
La Niña effects during December through February
La Niña effects during June through August

Tropical Cyclones

Tropical cyclone activity in the North Atlantic is more sensitive to El Niño influences than in any other ocean basin. In years with moderate to strong El Niño, the North Atlantic basin experiences:

  • A substantial reduction in cyclone numbers,
  • A 60% reduction in numbers of hurricane days, and
  • An overall reduction in system intensity.

This significant change is believed to be due to stronger than normal westerly winds that develop in the western North Atlantic and Caribbean region during El Niño years. Other regions around the world show no affect or are only slightly affected.

The table gives the trend in number and intensity of cyclones around the world due to the effects of El Niño. (However, as with most meteorological phenomena, there are always exceptions to these trends).

From Australia Bureau of Meteorology
Region El Niño Years Non-El Niño Years
Number of Storms Intensity Number of Storms Intensity
North Atlantic Large Decrease Small Decrease Small Increase Small Increase
Eastern North Pacific Slight Increase Increase Slight Decrease Decrease
Eastern half Increase No Change Decrease No Change
Western half Decrease No Change Increase No Change
Indian Ocean (North / South) No Change No Change No Change No Change
Western Slight Decrease No Change Slight Increase No Change
Central and East Decrease Slight Decrease Increase Slight Increase
South / Central Pacific (>160°E) Increase Increase Decrease Slight Decrease