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Would You Believe La Ninas Often Hurt the Economy More Than El Ninos?

By Joe D'Aleo
Monday, April 14, 2008

A strong La Nina has been blamed for all this year’s crazy weather around the globe. Unlike much of what you might read in the media, there is some truth in this.

You may remember, in the 1980s and 1990s, before the media’s favorite weather topic was climate change or global warming, it was all El Nino. It was blamed for virtually any weather event that occurred in El Nino years. It is true that El Ninos when strong are capable of producing losses that can total in the billions of dollars. El Ninos are feared in places like Indonesia, Australia, India, Brazil, Mexico, and parts of Africa where devastating droughts are possible. In the United States, southern states from California to Florida are vulnerable to damage from a barrage of strong winter storms.

Here in the United States, the El Nino of 1997/98 played a role in 18 President declared disasters with a total damage exceeding $4 billion.

However, the patterns of weather associated with strong El Nino events also produce many very positive effects and benefits.

For example, the milder temperatures of strong El Nino winters in the interior northern United States reduce heating costs for both homes and industry and the operating costs for transportation both by air and on land. Less snowfall in the north lowers the costs of snow removal for government and industry, and enables the construction industry to work more during the winter months. Shoppers are able to get to and from stores more easily and often and retail sales benefit. El Nino also typically results in less flooding during the spring and fewer hurricanes in the summer.

Stan Changnon, former head of the Illinois State Water Survey in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society in September, 1999 estimated the economic gains and losses during the great El Nino of 1997/98. He showed that the benefits were much greater than the losses.




Property Losses



Federal Government Relief



State Assistance



Agricultural Effects



Reduced sales of Snow Removal Equipment



Tourism, Recreation



Savings Heating Costs



Increased sales – homes, goods



Reduction in costs of street, highway removal of ice and snow



Reduction in losses due to the absence of snowmelt floods and no hurricanes



Income from increased construction and related employment



Reduced operating costs to airlines and trucking






NOTE: Ironically, in weak El Ninos, the picture may be different. In weak El Nino winters, you still get an increased number of storms but without as much added warmth. The result is that there can be heavy snowstorms instead of rains in the big cities of the east, with major (billion dollar) impact on the economy.


In La Nina, the picture is very different from that of El Nino. When periodic outbreaks of extreme cold weather and snow occur across the northern states, the costs of heating, snow removal, fuel for airline and trucking industries can become at least regionally significant. As snowstorms hit northern areas and ice storms occur across the south or east, business may be shut down for days with major effects on commerce. Retail sales may be down due to travel difficulties. Construction work will be hampered with delays and loss of employment.

Also in La Ninas, losses from springtime flooding and from summer droughts and hurricanes typically are much greater than normal. Flooding in La Nina years averages nearly $4.5 billion compared to an average of $2.4 billion. We have already seen examples of that this year in Missouri and Arkansas.

Major tornado outbreaks occurred in January 1999 in Arkansas and Tennessee and in May in Oklahoma and Kansas with $2.3 billion in damages. And of course the super tornado outbreakof April 1974 with its 148 tornadoes that left 315 dead and 500 injured occurred during a very strong La Nina.


A major heat wave and drought in the strong La Nina of 1988 caused an estimated $40 billion in damage or losses (mostly agricultural) in the central and eastern United States.

Hurricane related losses in La Nina years, averages $5.9 billion compared to an all year average of $3 billion. In fact as we will show you in upcoming reports, most all the major east coast hurricanes have been in La Nina years especially those with a warm Atlantic as we have currently.


On the other hand, the winter sports industry may benefit in the west and north from increased snowfall. This year they had a boon year from the Pacific Northwest across the Rockies and Great Lakes to northern New England.  Though the northern tier pays more for energy costs with cold winters and hot summers, many others save on their energy bills.

Warmer than normal temperatures in the big cities of the east and south may save consumers there billions through reduced heating costs. Tourism in 'escape' destinations like Florida and California is usually up. Sales of snow removal equipment and winter clothing are also higher.

But unlike El Ninos, the benefits are often dwarfed by the losses.


The frequency of both El Ninos and La Ninas is tied to the PDO. When the PDO is warm (positive) more El Ninos are favored and when negative La Ninas. The PDO phases average about 25-30 years in length. Though the PDO is a measure of conditions from 20N to the North Pacific, it turns out that warm water is favored in the tropics during the warm phase and cool water in the cool phase. This is what predisposes the Pacific towards an El Nino or La Nina state.

In the graph of Wolter’s Multivariate ENSO Index below, red spikes represent El Ninos and blue La Ninas. You can see that frequency shift with the PDO shift very clearly.


It appears the PDO which flirted with a change to negative in the late 1990s has returned solidly to a negative cold regime state. This is consistent with the 25-30 year phase length as the last shift called the Great Pacific Climate Shift occurred around 1977. If indeed it stays there this time, we can expect more La Ninas like this one in the years ahead just as we found in the last cold phase from 1947 to 1977. If that is the case and we see more La Ninas like this year, look for

(1) With more La Ninas than El Ninos, declining global temperatures with more regional extremes as we showed you in last weeks post occurred this past year


(2) More cold and snow across the northern tier from the Pacific Northwest and Northern plains to the Great Lakes and Northern New York and New England


(3) More winters with below normal snow Mid-Atlantic south (with the exception years in the occasional usually weaker El Nino


(4) More late winter and early spring floods from late storms and snowmelt


(5) Dry winters and early springs in Florida with spring brush fires


(6) More tornado outbreaks in the fall through the spring months.


(7) More Atlantic hurricanes threatening the east coast from Florida north, especially as long as the Atlantic stays warm (Atlantic usually lags up to a decade or so after the Pacific in its multidecadal cycles).


(8) Greater chances of growing season drought in the major growing areas


This La Nina winter, true to form, we have experienced heavy snow across the northern tier (we set all-time seasonal snowfall record from places in the Pacific Northwest to Colorado and in the Midwest in places like Madison, Wisconsin to the Great Lakes and northern New England and throughout much of southern Canada), extremes of global cold and snow (both hemispheres), and tornado outbreaks in January and February and devastating Midwest floods in March.  We may see more major outbreaks of tornadoes this spring and more spring flooding. We will be more vulnerable to a landfalling east coast hurricane.



La Ninas produce more winter cold and snows, more severe weather from fall through spring, more springtime flooding and summer droughts and heat waves, enhanced landfall hurricane threats with greater economic impact and declining global temperatures. Given the flip of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation to the cold mode which favors more La Ninas like this one, we may be looking back at recent decades as the good old days when weather was unusually benign and favorable.