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What to expect in the coming months as La Niña impacts Oklahoma's weather

State Climatologist Gary McManus in his office at the National Weather Center in Norman, Oklahoma.
Logan Layden
/
StateImpact Oklahoma
State Climatologist Gary McManus in his office at the National Weather Center in Norman, Oklahoma.

The 2024 spring storm season in Oklahoma was a wild one.

The barrage of storms not only kept TV meteorologists busy but caused significant damage in places like Sulphur, Barnsdall and Marietta. State Climatologist Gary McManus said many factors contributed to this year’s near-record number of tornadoes.

“I think some experts — severe weather experts — have tried to say that it was possibly the transition out of El Niño conditions and then into, well, we’re headed towards La Niña conditions,” McManus said.

During an El Niño, waters in the Pacific Ocean are warmer off the coast of the Americas. La Niña is when the waters are cooler in those same areas. Those conditions are caused by shifts in trade winds that change the position of the Pacific jet stream, impacting weather across the globe, and here in Oklahoma. But so much more goes into what we experience weather-wise — things like record rainfall in the panhandle, which happened earlier this week, or a hurricane coming up the Gulf Coast and eventually dumping rain on our state.

“I think it’s just an active spring, so we don't necessarily have some overriding reason other than we had a nice, well, not so nice south westerly jet stream from southwest to northeast, which tends to bring us severe weather in the spring if we get the proper conditions,” McManus said.

McManus said the Gulf of Mexico has been extremely warm over the past few months, and warm moist air moving over Oklahoma meant conditions were set up for an active spring. Now we’re moving from El Niño to La Niña — these climate patterns in the Pacific Ocean that impact weather, mainly in the cooler months. And that has McManus worried about drought.

“So what we’re looking for when we talk about La Niña would be drier than normal conditions through the cool season — mid fall through mid spring and then warmer than normal conditions,” McManus said. “So when you think about that overall, we think about drought formation.”

That isn't necessarily for this summer, but next year.

“Those two things go hand in hand — warmer than normal and drier than normal conditions,” McManus said. “Even though it’s during the cool season when we don’t get most of our precipitation. We don’t get a lot of precipitation during that time. It can sort of seed the ground for drought formation. And when we get into early spring when we’re expecting a lot of rainfall, that can also curtail that.”

All of these cycles of El Niño and La Niña, and the decades-long trends favoring one or the other, are normal and expected. But the impacts of climate change are increasingly contributing to more extreme weather.

“Climate change. We used to say you can’t really contribute singular events to climate change, but that’s really starting to change itself,” McManus said. “I think scientists are becoming much more confident, where they can point to singular events and say this is more climate change. And one of the things we’re seeing this year is that very warm tropical area down across the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean — that’s probably due to climate change, due to the warming of the globe.”

And warming it is. May 2024 was the warmest May on record for the planet according to NOAA — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which marks a big milestone: the 12th consecutive warmest month on record going back to this time last year. The expectation is for those records to continue to be broken. What that means for weather in Oklahoma in the longer term remains unclear.

StateImpact Oklahoma is a partnership of Oklahoma’s public radio stations which relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online.

Logan Layden is a reporter and managing editor for StateImpact Oklahoma.