What is La Niña and how does it impact Australia?
El Niño and La Niña have the strongest influence on year-to-year climate variability for most of Australia. Read about the typical and historical impacts.
Climate Driver Update
Climate drivers in the Pacific, Indian and Southern oceans and the Tropics
Sea surface temperature maps
Sea surface temperature maps are not available for forecasts before Spring 2018
SST outlooks for the next 3 months
ENSO is the oscillation between El Niño and La Niña states in the Pacific region. El Niños typically produce drier seasons, and La Niñas drive wetter years, but the influence of each event varies, particularly in conjunction with other climate influences.
International climate model outlooks
The graphs are based on the ensemble mean for the most recent model run.
These graphs show the average forecast value of NINO3.4 for each international model surveyed for the selected calendar month. If the bars on the graph are approaching or exceeding the blue dashed line, there is an increased risk of La Niña. Similarly, if the bars on the graph are approaching or exceeding the red dashed line, there is an increased chance of El Niño.
Weekly sea surface temperatures
Graphs of the table values
Monthly sea surface temperatures
Graphs of the table values
5-day sub-surface temperatures
- See also: Links open in new window
- Animation of recent sub-surface temperature changes
- Archive of sub-surface temperature charts
Southern Oscillation Index
- Data Source: Links open in new window
- TAO/TRITON data
Cloudiness near the Date Line
About El Niño and La Niña (ENSO)
ENSO is the oscillation between El Niño and La Niña conditions.
The term El Niño refers to the extensive warming of the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean which leads to a major shift in weather patterns across the Pacific. This occurs every three to eight years and is associated with a weaker Walker Circulation (see diagram below) and drier conditions in eastern Australia. El Niño Southern Oscillation(ENSO) is the term used to describe the oscillation between the El Niño phase and the La Niña, or opposite, phase.
In the eastern Pacific, the northward flowing Humbolt current brings cooler water from the Southern Ocean to the tropics. Furthermore, along the equator, strong east to southeasterly Trade winds cause the ocean currents in the eastern Pacific to draw water from the deeper ocean towards the surface, helping to keep the surface cool. However in the far western Pacific there is no cool current, and weaker Trades mean that this "upwelling" effect is reduced. Hence waters in the western equatorial Pacific are able to warm more effectively under the influence of the tropical sun. This means that under "normal" conditions the western tropical Pacific is 8 to 10°C warmer than the eastern tropical Pacific. While the ocean surface north and northeast of Australia is typically 28 to 30°C or warmer, near South America the Pacific Ocean is close to 20°C. This warmer area of ocean is a source for convection and is associated with cloudiness and rainfall.
However, during El Niño years, the trade winds weaken and the central and eastern tropical Pacific warms up. This change in ocean temperature sees a shift in cloudiness and rainfall from the western to the central tropical Pacific Ocean.
The Southern Oscillation Index, or SOI, gives an indication of the development and intensity of El Niño or La Niña events in the Pacific Ocean. The SOI is calculated using the pressure differences between Tahiti and Darwin. The following figure demonstrates the typical fluctuations in SOI over a period of 11 years. Positive SOI values are shown in blue, with negative in orange. Sustained positive values are indicative of La Niña conditions, and sustained negative values indicative of El Niño conditions.
This graph shows the values of the SOI between 1991 and mid-2015. Monthly SOI data.
Each phase of the ENSO has a very different effect on the Australian climate. Events generally have an autumn to autumn pattern of evolution and decay. That is, they typically begin to develop during autumn, strengthen in winter/spring, then decay during summer and autumn of the following year. These effects are described in further detail on the following pages: El Niño and La Niña.
Further information about the El Niño Southern Oscillation and its impact on the Australian Climate.
The Climate Driver Update provides the latest information on the state of ENSO and the likely effect this will have on Australia.
Timeline of monthly Southern Oscillation Index (SOI) values since 1876
The Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) is defined by the difference in sea surface temperatures between the eastern and western tropical Indian Ocean. A negative phase typically sees above average winter-spring rainfall in Australia, while a positive phase brings drier than average seasons.
International climate model outlooks
The graphs are based on the ensemble mean for the most recent model run.
Thse graphs show the average forecast value of the IOD index for each international model surveyed for the selected calendar month. If the majority of models are approaching or exceeding the blue dashed line, then there is an increased risk of a negative IOD event. If the majority of models are approaching or exceeding the red dashed line, then there is an increased risk of a positive IOD event.
About the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD)
Indian Ocean sea surface temperatures impact rainfall and temperature patterns over Australia. Warmer than average sea surface temperatures can provide more moisture for frontal systems and lows crossing Australia.
Indian Ocean Dipole
Sustained changes in the difference between sea surface temperatures of the tropical western and eastern Indian Ocean are known as the Indian Ocean Dipole or IOD. The IOD is one of the key drivers of Australia's climate and can have a significant impact on agriculture. This is because events generally coincide with the winter crop growing season. The IOD has three phases: neutral, positive and negative. Events usually start around May or June, peak between August and October and then rapidly decay when the monsoon arrives in the southern hemisphere around the end of spring.
Indian Ocean Dipole years
The Southern Annular Mode, or SAM, refers to the north-south shift of rain-bearing westerly winds and weather systems in the Southern Ocean compared to the usual position.
Southern Annular Mode (SAM) history
About the Southern Annular Mode (SAM) outlook
The Southern Annular Mode can result in enhanced rainfall in regions of southern Australia.
The Southern Annular Mode, or SAM, also known as the Antarctic Oscillation (AAO), is a mode of variability which can affect rainfall in southern Australia. The SAM refers to the north/south movement of the strong westerly winds that dominate the middle to higher latitudes of the Southern Hemisphere. The belt of strong westerly winds in the Southern Hemisphere is also associated with the storm systems and cold fronts that move from west to east.
During the summer and autumn months (December through to May) the SAM is showing an increasing tendency to remain in a positive phase, with westerly winds contracted towards the south pole.
The contribution that the SAM makes to the climate variability in Australia and the apparent positive trend in the SAM are relatively recent discoveries and as such are still active areas of research.
The diagram above shows the area affected by the Southern Annular Mode, when it occurs and how long it may last.
In terms of mean sea level pressure, the SAM affects the coastal regions of southern Australia throughout the year. Extreme negative phases of the SAM can cause increased rainfall and cold air outbreaks in southern Australia.
Each SAM event, both positive and negative, tends to last for around ten days to two weeks. The time frame between positive and negative events however is quite random, but is typically in the range of a week to a few months.
The impact that the SAM has on rainfall varies greatly depending on season and region. If Australia were a few degrees further south, then the impact of changes in SAM would be much more pronounced. The diagram below describes the average impact on rainfall during a "positive" (westerly winds further south) SAM event.
The SAM also has an impact on temperatures. In general, in areas where rainfall is increased, temperature is decreased whilst where rainfall is decreased, temperature is increased.
The diagram above shows the impact that a "positive" SAM event (decreased westerly winds) has on Australian rainfall. Shading indicates daily rainfall anomaly in mm/day for each of the seasons. (Source: Hendon et al. 2007)
During July 2007, the SAM was in a strong negative phase. This was reflected in rainfall patterns across southern Australia.
- Have a look at the latest atmospheric circulation patterns.
- Current values of the Antarctic Oscillation Index (an index related to the strength and phase of the SAM) are available from the US National Weather Service (NOAA)
- The relationship between the SAM and Australian rainfall is discussed in detail in this research paper.
The Madden–Julian Oscillation (MJO) is the major fluctuation in tropical weather on weekly to monthly timescales. It can be characterised as an eastward moving 'pulse' of cloud and rainfall near the equator that typically recurs every 30 to 60 days.
Tropical Climate Update
MJO phase diagram
*Note: There are missing satellite observations from 16/3/1978 to 31/12/1978.
The MJO phase diagram illustrates the progression of the MJO through different phases, which generally coincide with locations along the equator around the globe. RMM1 and RMM2 are mathematical methods that combine cloud amount and winds at upper and lower levels of the atmosphere to provide a measure of the strength and location of the MJO. When the index is within the centre circle the MJO is considered weak, meaning it is difficult to discern using the RMM methods. Outside of this circle the index is stronger and will usually move in an anti-clockwise direction as the MJO moves from west to east. For convenience, we define 8 different MJO phases in this diagram.
Daily averaged OLR anomalies
Westerly wind anomalies
Time-longitude plots of daily averaged OLR anomalies (left) and 850 hPa (approximately 1.5 km above sea level) westerly wind anomalies (right) are useful for indicating the movement of the MJO.
How to read the Time-Longitude plots
The vertical axis represents time with the most distant past on the top and becoming more recent as you move down the chart. The Horizontal axis represents longitude.
Eastward movement of a strong MJO event would be seen as a diagonal line of violet (downward from left to right) in the OLR diagram, and a corresponding diagonal line of purple in the wind diagram. These diagonal lines would most likely fall between 60°E and 150°E and they would be repeated nearly every 1 to 2 months.
About the Madden–Julian Oscillation (MJO) outlook
The Madden-Julian Oscillation is associated with weekly to monthly periods of enhanced and suppressed rainfall over parts of Australia.
The Madden-Julian Oscillation (MJO) is a global-scale feature of the tropical atmosphere.
The MJO is the major fluctuation in tropical weather on weekly to monthly timescales. The MJO can be characterized as an eastward moving "pulse" of cloud and rainfall near the equator that typically recurs every 30 to 60 days. However, the signal of the MJO in the tropical atmosphere is not always present.
MJO effects are most evident over the Indian Ocean and western equatorial Pacific. It influences the timing, development and strength of the major global monsoon patterns, including the Indian and Australian monsoons.
Tropical cyclones are also more likely to develop in association with certain phases of a strong MJO event.
The MJO is associated with variations in wind, cloudiness, and rainfall. Most tropical rainfall comes from tall thunderstorms which have very cold tops. Thunderstorms that have cold tops emit only low levels of longwave radiation. Therefore, the MJO can be monitored by using satellite measurements of outgoing longwave radiation (OLR) to identify areas of cloudiness (low OLR) within the tropics.
The diagram above shows the area most affected by the Madden-Julian Oscillation (MJO), the seasons during which the MJO's influence on Australia is greatest, and for how long each active phase of the MJO typically lasts.
The MJO has its greatest effect on the tropical areas of Australia during summer. It may have some effect on parts of southern Australia, however this impact appears small when compared to the effect on northern regions, and remains the subject of research.
The MJO can have an effect on the timing and intensity of "active" monsoon periods in northern Australia. This can lead to enhanced rainfall - in both the intensity of the rainfall and the duration of the rainfall.
During late January 2006, an active phase of the MJO coincided with an active monsoon period, resulting in enhanced rainfall over northern Australia.
The following links provide further information on the MJO.
- The Tropical Climate Update provides information on the current phase of the MJO.
- Technical information and maps relating to the Real-time Multivariate MJO Index, which is a way of monitoring the climate and weather variations caused by the MJO. Please note that this product is a research product, and as such is not always updated and may be under-going continual changes as it is developed.
SSTs for September 2021 were close to average across most of the equatorial Pacific Ocean, but warmer than average SSTs were present in waters around the north and south-east of Australia, and weak cool SST anomalies were present in parts of the central to eastern equatorial Pacific.
Values of the three key NINO indices for September 2021 were: NINO3 −0.2 °C, NINO3.4 −0.3 °C, and NINO4 −0.2 °C.
Sea surface temperatures (SST) for the tropical Pacific Ocean for the week ending 10 October 2021 were cooler than average along much of the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean, although anomalies were within 0.8 degrees of average. Negative anomalies cover a much greater area than they did two weeks ago. Cool SST anomalies continue to be centred just to the south of the equator, rather than directly along the equator, which is reflected in sub-surface anomaly patterns.
Weak warm SST anomalies continue over the far western Pacific Ocean, including parts of the Maritime Continent, and waters to the north of Australia. Compared to two weeks ago, warm anomalies have decreased to the north-west of Australia, but have increased across the Arafura Sea north of the Top End.
All three NINO indices are within the ENSO-neutral range. The latest values of the three NINO indices in the tropical Pacific for the week ending 10 October 2021 were: NINO3 −0.4 °C, NINO3.4 −0.5 °C, and NINO4 −0.4 °C.
Persistent NINO3 or NINO3.4 values cooler than −0.8 °C are typical of La Niña, while persistent values warmer than +0.8 °C typically indicate El Niño.
The 30-day Southern Oscillation Index (SOI) for the 30 days ending 10 October 2021 was +9.4. The 90-day SOI value was +8.8.
The 30-day SOI has maintained similar values over the past four weeks.
Sustained negative values of the SOI above +7 typically indicate La Niña while sustained positive values below −7 typically indicate El Niño. Values between +7 and −7 generally indicate neutral conditions.
Trade winds for the 5 days ending 10 October 2021 were slightly stronger than average across much of the central and western tropical Pacific, and close to average in the east.
During La Niña there is a sustained strengthening of the trade winds across much of the tropical Pacific, while during El Niño there is a sustained weakening, or even reversal, of the trade winds.
The Madden–Julian Oscillation (MJO) has been active over the Maritime Continent, but is expected to weaken in the coming week and is unlikely to influence Australian rainfall patterns. While the MJO is over the Maritime Continent region, it encourages enhanced rainfall over the tropics to the north of Australia.
The negative Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) event has strengthened again over the past fortnight, with index values again meeting negative IOD thresholds (i.e. −0.4 °C or cooler). The latest weekly value of the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) index to 10 October 2021 was −0.53 °C.
However, all five international climate models surveyed by the Bureau indicate the monthly IOD value for November will be within the neutral range, indicating a return to neutral weekly values in the coming weeks. This is consistent with the typical life cycle of an IOD event, which sees events dissipate in late spring or early summer with the arrival of the Australian monsoon. When the monsoon trough shifts south over the tropical Indian Ocean, it changes wind patterns and prevents an IOD event from forming. This is why IOD events are unable to form (and therefore influence Australian climate) during December to April.
Weekly sea surface temperatures (SSTs) in the Indian Ocean were warmer than average across much of the eastern half and north of the basin. Residual warm SST anomalies are likely to persist as the event declines, and are still expected to influence rainfall patterns. A negative IOD, and a warmer eastern Indian Ocean generally, increase the chances of above average spring rainfall for much of southern and eastern Australia. Additionally, daytime temperatures are typically cooler than average for southern Australia, but warmer than average in the north.
Cloudiness near the Date Line has been consistently below average (positive OLR anomalies) since June.
Equatorial cloudiness near the Date Line typically decreases during La Niña (positive OLR anomalies) and increases during El Niño (negative OLR anomalies).
The four-month sequence of equatorial Pacific sub-surface temperature anomalies (to September) shows cool anomalies have developed in the sub-surface of the central to eastern equatorial Pacific, with a marked increase during September compared to previous months. Waters were up to three degrees cooler than average across a large region, and reach up to four degrees cooler than average in the central equatorial Pacific around 150°W and 150 m depth.
Weak warm anomalies continue across parts of the column depth west of the Date Line.
For the five days ending 10 October 2021, sub-surface temperatures were close to average across most of the equatorial Pacific. A volume of cooler than average water reaching more than three degrees cooler than average is present between 50 and 100 m depth extending from 140°W to 115°W. Compared to two weeks ago, this cool water has shifted from the central Pacific to the eastern Pacific.
Overall, sub-surface temperatures remain consistent with an ENSO-neutral state. However, if this volume of cooler than average water continues to shoal (rise towards the surface) and progress eastward, it is likely to lead to further cooling of surface waters in the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean, and may support further development of La Niña.
The Bureau's ENSO Outlook has been raised to La Niña ALERT. This is due to continued cooling in the tropical Pacific Ocean and an increase in the number of climate models showing sustained La Niña conditions over summer. Historically, when La Niña ALERT criteria have been met, La Niña has subsequently developed around 70% of the time. A 70% chance of an event is approximately triple the normal likelihood. La Niña events increase the chances of above-average rainfall for northern and eastern Australia during spring and summer.
Most oceanic and atmospheric indicators of ENSO are currently within the ENSO-neutral range, but some have shifted towards a La Niña-like state. Sea surface temperatures in the central tropical Pacific Ocean are neutral, but have cooled over the past three months and are supported by cooler than average waters beneath the surface. Some atmospheric indicators, such as the Southern Oscillation Index (SOI) and cloudiness near the Date Line, are approaching La Niña levels. Six of the seven international climate models surveyed by the Bureau meet La Niña criteria from November.
A weak negative Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) event continues. Most models suggest the negative IOD event will ease to neutral levels in late spring. A negative IOD increases the chances of above-average spring rainfall for much of southern and eastern Australia, while a neutral IOD has little influence on Australian climate.
The Madden–Julian Oscillation (MJO) has been active over the Maritime Continent since late September. The MJO is forecast to progress eastwards over the coming week and weaken as it approaches the western Pacific. While the MJO is over the Maritime Continent region, it encourages enhanced rainfall over the tropics to the north of Australia.
The Southern Annular Mode (SAM) index has been neutral for the past week after 5 to 6 weeks at positive levels. While it is forecast to remain neutral for the coming week, it is expected to return to generally positive levels from October to December. A positive SAM during spring typically brings wetter weather to eastern parts of Australia, but drier than average conditions for western Tasmania.
Climate change continues to influence Australian and global climate. Australia's climate has warmed by around 1.44 °C for the 1910–2019 period. Rainfall across northern Australia during its wet season (October–April) has increased since the late 1990s. In recent decades there has been a trend towards a greater proportion of rainfall from high intensity short duration rainfall events, especially across northern Australia.
The Southern Annular Mode (SAM) index is neutral and likely to remain neutral this week. SAM is expected to return to generally positive levels from October to December.
A strengthened polar vortex over Antarctica is currently assisting this forecast positive phase of SAM, as well as the increased likelihood of La Niña.
A positive SAM during spring typically brings wetter weather to eastern parts of Australia, but typically has a drying influence on south-westerly exposed coasts such as western Tasmania.
As we move into summer, the influence of positive SAM towards above average rainfall increases over mainland southeastern Australia, while the tendency to reduced rainfall decreases for western Tasmania, and there is an increased chance of above average rainfall in eastern Tasmania.
The El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is currently neutral.
However, all of the seven international climate models surveyed by the Bureau anticipate further cooling of tropical Pacific sea surface temperatures. All models surveyed indicate La Niña thresholds may be met during November. Six of the seven models indicate this cooling will be sustained at La Niña levels until at least January 2022—long enough to meet minimum La Niña event criteria (i.e. at least three months). Four models continue the event into February, but by March only two models continue to meet the threshold.
La Niña typically enhances spring rainfall in northern and eastern Australia.
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