La Niña conditions likely to lead to dry, warm winter weather in New Mexico, federal agency says

New Mexico and the rest of the Southwest could see another mild winter this year

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its seasonal forecast on Oct. 21.
  • It calls for drier-than-normal conditions in the American Southwest, as well as warmer-than-normal temperatures.
  • If those conditions hold up, this will mark the second straight winter that La Niña has prevailed.

FARMINGTON — San Juan County residents still looking for relief from the long-running drought got some bad news Oct. 21 when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its seasonal forecast.

The forecast from the agency's Climate Prediction Center confirmed what has been anticipated for weeks — the establishment of La Niña conditions in the Pacific Ocean that historically have led to drier-than-normal conditions in the American Southwest, as well as warmer-than-normal temperatures. That likely means that drought conditions across the Southwest will continue or even grow worse over the next several months, forecasters say.

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Bicyclists pedal through Kiwanis Park in Farmington on Feb. 16, 2021, after a snowstorm. With La Nina conditions in place, the chances of significant moisture falling this winter are not good, according to forecasters.

If those conditions hold up, this will mark the second straight winter that La Niña has prevailed. Randall Hergert, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Albuquerque, cited figures from climate.gov indicating that, since record keeping began in 1950, a first-year La Niña event has occurred 12 times. La Niña conditions prevailed again the next year eight times, meaning this year's double-dip La Niña is not exactly a rare happenstance.

The last time a La Niña set up in consecutive years was during the winters of 2016-2017 and 2017-2018, he said. It also happened in 2010-2011 and 2011-2012.

This year's La Niña comes on the heels of a relatively wet monsoon season over the summer, a time when much of drought-stricken New Mexico and other parts or the Southwest made a substantial recovery from bone-dry conditions. Herger said that while 94% of the state is still classified as being in an abnormally dry state or worse, according to drought.gov, it is much better off than it was in October 2020.

A year ago, 67% of New Mexico was classified as being in severe, extreme or exceptional drought, the three worst categories. But only 11% of the state finds itself in that condition this year, he said, and none of the state is in exceptional drought, the worst category.

Unfortunately for local residents, much of San Juan County is included in the extreme drought class, which is the second-worst category. The rest of the county is in severe drought, the third-worst category.

San Juan County isn't alone in its misery. Parts or all of McKinley, Sandoval, Rio Arriba, Los Alamos, Santa Fe, Mora, San Miguel, Taos, Bernalillo and Cibola counties also are classified as being in extreme drought.

Conditions have improved markedly in the state's southwest corner over the past year, as parts of that region received ample, even excessive moisture over the summer. Large portions of Otero, Lea and Eddy counties, as well as a sliver of Dona Ana County, now are considered drought free.

Snow melts on a sandstone formation at Lions Wilderness Park in Farmington on Feb. 16, 2021.

The northwest plateau has not been so fortunate, Hergert noted, and he said that part of the state shouldn't count on a change to its situation this winter.

"La Niña certainly isn't going to help at all with the drought outlook," he said of the region, adding that the eastern plains of New Mexico — an area that also escaped the worst effects of the drought this summer — quickly could see a return to drought conditions this winter.

Hergert said there is no way to quantify how much warmer or drier conditions might be across New Mexico this winter, explaining that the NOAA forecast simply judges the likelihood of those conditions occurring in general terms.

He described La Niña conditions as the opposite of El Niño conditions. Under La Nina, he said, sea surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean tend to be cooler than normal, pushing the jet stream northward. That results in storm systems coming off the ocean maintaining a more northerly flow throughout the winter. That generally means wetter, cooler conditions for the Pacific Northwest.

When an El Niño occurs, those sea surface temperatures are warmer than normal, and many of the storm systems coming off the Pacific Ocean follow a more southerly flow, increasing the chances for moisture and cooler weather across the Southwest. The last time an El Niño pattern set up was during the winter of 2018-2019, Hergert said, a phenomenon that resulted in generous, even record-breaking snowfall totals in some parts of New Mexico.

That isn't likely to happen this year, but Hergert said the law of averages may tilt toward the Southwest next year.

"El Niños tend to happen every three or four years, so maybe we'll see one next year," he said.

As far as this year goes, he said New Mexico weather watchers shouldn't assume this winter will be warm and dry from start to finish. La Niña conditions don't mean the region won't still seem cold temperatures and the occasional snowstorm — it just means New Mexico will see less of that than normal.

"Even though it's a La Niña, we can still expect one or two good winter storms," he said.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.