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Jan 27, 2015 04:44 PM EST

Global Warming May Double Risk of Extreme La Nina Event

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The risk of extreme La Niña events in the Pacific Ocean could double due to global warming, according to a recent study.

Researchers at the University of Exeter found that the projected twofold increase in the frequency of this potentially devastating weather phenomenon across the globe could lead to increased droughts in south-western United States, floods in the western Pacific regions and Atlantic hurricanes.

Furthermore, with around 70 percent of these increased La Niña events projected to follow immediately after an extreme El Niño event, parts of the world could experience weather patterns that switch between extremes of wet and dry.

"Our previous research showed a doubling in frequency of extreme El Niño events, and this new study shows a similar fate for the cold phase of the cycle," researcher Mat Collins said in a statement. "It shows again how we are just beginning to understand the consequences of global warming."

For the study, researchers used state-of-the-art climate modeling to determine how global warming will influence the frequency of future extreme La Niña events.

El Niño and La Niña events are opposite phases of the natural climate phenomenon, the El Niño/Southern Oscillation. Extreme La Niña events occur when cold sea surface temperatures in the central Pacific Ocean contrast with the warming land areas of Maritime Southeast Asia in the west and create a strong temperature gradient.

The new research suggests that increased land warming, coupled with an increase in frequency of extreme El Niño events, will mean extreme La Niña could occur every 13 years, rather than the 23 years previously seen.

Researcher Dr. Wenju Cai indicated the potential impact of this change in climate.

"An increased frequency in extreme La Niña events, most of which occur in the year after an extreme El Niño, would mean an increase in the occurrence of devastating weather events with profound socio-economic consequences," Cai said.

The findings are detailed in the journal Nature Climate Change.

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