La Niña returns — could historic Texas freeze happen again?

Weather

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Nine months after the winter storm, many Central Texans are still dealing with the emotional aftermath.

“I don’t even think I can turn on the fireplace,” says Georgetown resident Elizabeth Stratton. “I’m like, pretty traumatized by how long we sat there for and how cold we were.”

Elizabeth endured the February 2021 winter storm with her 8-month-old son. Her husband Owen was deployed abroad.


Elizabeth Stratton and her son bundled up outside their home.
Elizabeth Stratton struggled to keep her baby warm during the winter storm. (Courtesy Elizabeth Stratton)

As the temperature inside her home dropped to 38°, Elizabeth had to figure out how to keep her baby warm and fed.

“All the food is going bad in the fridge,” Stratton said. “My breast milk, that took me forever to pump because I wasn’t supplying enough, was going to be ruined.”

The mother and child spent hours sitting on the bathroom floor, keeping warm using the mist from her running shower.

“I could tell he was really cold, too,” Stratton said. “It was just hard. Really hard, emotionally.”

“You’ve got to kind of keep it together, because you’re a mom,” Stratton said. “I am so scared we are going to have something like that happen again.”

Will we have another winter storm this season?

New winter outlooks issued Nov. 18 by the NOAA Climate Prediction Center predict a warmer and drier-than-normal winter in Central Texas.


El Nino and La Nina patterns fluctuate since 1990
The Oceanic Niño index tracks the El Niño and La Niña patterns over the past thirty years. (KXAN Graphic)

The main reason for these predictions is the La Niña pattern present in the Pacific Ocean, with cooler-than-normal water close to the Equator. But, this same La Niña pattern was in place last winter when we had the historic February winter storm.

So, what are the odds of an extreme freeze happening again this winter?

Did La Niña cause the February 2021 Winter Storm?

Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon is the State Climatologist for Texas and an expert on how the El Niño/La Niña cycle affects Texas weather.


The jet stream is a strong wind current that circles the Northern Hemisphere and keeps frigid air near the north pole.
The jet stream is a strong wind current that circles the Northern Hemisphere and keeps frigid air near the north pole. (KXAN Graphic)

“La Niña is basically the opposite of El Niño,” Dr. Nielsen-Gammon said. “El Niño is when the temperatures in the tropical Pacific become unusually warm. La Niña, they become unusually cold.”

The colder ocean water in the Eastern Pacific drives the winter storm track north.

“With the jet stream farther north, we tend to have fewer storms,” Dr. Nielsen-Gammon said. “So we get less precipitation, fewer cold fronts, temperatures tend to be warmer on average.”

So how did Central Texas get a historic cold blast and snowstorm during a La Niña winter?

Dr. Nielsen-Gammon says the intrusion of Arctic air straight from the North Pole was caused by a “sudden stratospheric warming event,” which is completely unrelated to La Niña.

“The polar vortex that normally sits over the pole gets disrupted, breaks into two pieces,” Dr. Nielsen-Gammon said. “And, when that happens, it sort of throws off the weather around the hemisphere. And, some place or another is going to get something unusual — can’t really tell who it is going to be. This time, it turned out to be us.”

The “double-dip” La Niña and winter weather


2021/2022 has a double-dip La Nina
KXAN predicted the 2021/2022 “double-dip” La Niña earlier this year (KXAN Graphic)

What’s different about this winter is that it is our second-consecutive La Niña winter. There was a moderate La Niña pattern in place last winter, it weakened over the summer, but now it’s intensifying again. This “double dip” La Niña is something we first warned you may happen earlier this year.

Our analysis found during the second dip of La Niña, Central Texas winter weather is:

  • 0.93°F warmer
  • Brings 1.8” less snow
  • Features 6 fewer freezes

…than during the first La Niña winter.

We also found the second consecutive La Niña winter is:

  • 1.23°F warmer
  • Brings 0.18” less snow
  • Features 2 fewer freezes

…than an average winter, regardless of El Niño/La Niña status.


A second La Niña is usually warmer and drier than the first La Niña and a typical Central Texas winter. (KXAN Graphic)
A second La Niña is usually warmer and drier than the first La Niña and a typical Central Texas winter. (KXAN Graphic)

Note: This trend is robust even when the abnormally cold and snowy February 2021 is removed from the “first La Niña” dataset. Scroll to the bottom of the story to see the full data and which winters were analyzed.

Does this mean we might not have another winter storm?

This is all to say that a massive winter storm is less likely to happen this winter.

“Historically, the trend we’ve seen for extreme temperatures in Texas in the wintertime is they’ve gotten quite a bit warmer,” Dr. Nielsen-Gammon said. “The cold air outbreak we had last year was really an exception. And, as near as we can tell, that trend will continue, so that hopefully what we had last year will remain exceptional.”

As Dr. Nielsen-Gammon mentions, the coming La Niña winter is happening against the background of a warming climate. And even though climate change is leading to warmer winters overall, new research shows that climate change can actually make the occasional, extreme cold snap happen more often in the United States.

Stratton reflects back to those brutally cold February days and says she can hardly believe what she and so many others had to go through.

“It took me awhile to get back to feeling like I could go home, and it’s OK to go home, and we’re going to have heat. We’re going to have electric,” she said. “I will never take that stuff for granted every again.”

La Niña winter data analysis — How we crunched the numbers

The First Warning Weather team analyzed Austin/Camp Mabry weather during double-dip La Niña events dating back to the 1990s, separating the first and second-consecutive La Niña winters to see if the resulting local conditions are different.

An average winter at Camp Mabry (1991-2020) brings December highs and lows of 63.9/43.4 degrees, January highs and lows of 62.5/41.8 degrees, and February highs and lows of 66.5/45.8 degrees. 

December averages 2.72″ of rainfall, January averages 2.64″, and February typically brings 1.89″ of rain. Twenty percent of our annual rainfall falls in the winter months — our driest season of the four.

Austin/Camp Mabry typically records 0.2″ of snowfall per winter, and sees 12 nights of freezing temperatures. 

Here are the trends of the double-dip La Niñas:

  • Winter ’95/’96 and ’96/’97 — Moderate La Niña followed by weak La Niña
  • Winter ’98/’99 and ’99/’00 — Strong La Niña followed by strong La Niña
  • Winter ’07/’08 and ’08/’09 — Strong La Niña followed by weak/moderate La Niña
  • Winter ’10/’11 and ’11/’12 — Strong La Niña followed by moderate La Niña
  • Winter ’20/’21 — Moderate/strong La Niña, predicted to lead into a weak/moderate La Niña this winter

Below, explore the data we analyzed:

First La Niña Dip Data

Time periodTemp.Precip.SnowFreezes
Dec ’951.3-2.2104
Jan ’96-1.7-2.58010
Feb ’961.6-1.270.35
Overall0.4° (warmer)-6.06″ (drier)0.3″19
Dec ’98-0.8-1.16Trace6
Jan ’993.3-2.44NA6
Feb ’996.2-1.86NA0
Overall2.9° (warmer)-5.46″ (drier)Trace12
Dec ’071.1-2.0506
Jan ’08-1.8-1.8206
Feb ’083.3-1.3802
Overall0.867° (warmer)-5.25″ (drier)014
Dec ’100.6-1.9304
Jan ’11-2.50.2806
Feb ’11-1-1.410.99
Overall-0.967° (cooler)-3.06″ (drier)0.919
Dec ’201.31.3502
Jan ’211.4-1.011.54
Feb ’21 (winter storm)-7.80.026.410
Overall-1.7° (cooler)0.36″ (wetter)7.916

Overall first La Niña winter averages

Temp.Precip.SnowFreezes
0.3° (warmer)-3.894″ (drier)1.82″16

Excluding abnormally cold/snowy Feb. ’21

Temp.Precip.SnowFreezes
0.91° (warmer)-3.932″ (drier)0.54″14

Second La Niña Dip Data

Time PeriodTemp.Precip.SnowFreezes
Dec ’961.3-0.53T6
Jan ’97-3.4-1.57T12
Feb ’97-3.12.05NA0
Overall-1.73° (cooler)-0.05″ (drier)Trace18
Dec ’992-1.57NA1
Jan ’003.10.21NA5
Feb ’006-0.14NA0
Overall3.7° (warmer)-1.5″ (drier)N/A6
Dec ’08-0.1-2.320.14
Jan ’091.3-1.906
Feb ’094.8-0.4201
Overall2° (warmer)-4.64″ (drier)0.1″11
Dec ’11-1.42.2103
Jan ’122.92.06Trace3
Feb ’121.31.15Trace1
Overall0.933° (warmer)5.42″ (wetter)Trace7

Overall second La Niña winter averages

Temp.Precip.SnowFreezes
1.225 deg warmer-0.193″ (drier)0.025″10.5

Overall, the second-consecutive La Niña winter is warmer, features fewer freezes and less snowfall than the first La Niña winter. The second-consecutive La Niña winter is also warmer, features fewer freezes and less snowfall than an average Central Texas winter in general, regardless of La Niña status.

Even when February 2021’s abnormally snowy and cold weather is removed, this analysis still holds up.

Digital Director Kate Winkle contributed to this report.

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