National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration
United States Department of Commerce


FY 2014

Why did the 2011–2012 La Niña cause a severe drought in the Brazilian Northeast?

Rodrigues, R.R., and M.J. McPhaden

Geophys. Res. Lett., 41(3), 1012–1018, doi: 10.1002/2013GL058703 (2014)

The Brazilian Northeast (NE) is strongly affected by El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO). During La Niña events, the precipitation over the NE is generally above average. However, during the last La Niña event in 2011–2012, the NE went through its worst drought in the last 30 years. In this study, observations and numerical simulations are used to determine what made the 2011–2012 event different from other events. We find that eastern Pacific (canonical) La Niña events cause a cooling of the tropical North Atlantic and warming of the tropical South Atlantic that lead to a southward migration of the Intertropical Convergence Zone, which in turn brings rain to the NE. On the other hand, La Niña events with the cooling concentrated in the central Pacific cause the opposite meridional sea surface temperature (SST) gradient in the tropical Atlantic, leading to droughts over the NE. The 2011–2012 event was of the latter type. This study also shows that it is possible to predict the sign of the NE rainfall anomaly during ENSO events using a simple SST index.

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