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Global Warming May Lead to More Frequent La Nina Events: Study

Global warming may boost the frequency of extreme and devastating La Niña events, a study released on Monday suggests.

Those powerful weather events, which currently occur about every 23 years, have been responsible for heavy flooding in the countries bordering the western Pacific and droughts in the American Southwest, as well as increasingly intense Atlantic hurricanes and Pacific cyclones. The new study predicts that, as the climate warms, extreme La Niña events will occur almost twice as often as they do now, according to a report published in Nature Climate Change.

La Niña and El Niño are opposite phases of a climate phenomenon that can be extremely destructive when intense. The new models also predict that powerful La Niña events will follow closely on the heels of intense El Niño, causing weather patterns to flip flop between extremes of wet and dry.

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The models don’t predict exactly when all of this will happen, but “the study finds that averaged over the next 100 years (from 1900-2099), the frequency will double from the 1900-1999 period,” said lead author Wenju Cai, chief research scientist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Australia.

The most recent extreme La Niña, in 1998-99, was linked to one of the most severe droughts in the southwestern United States, and floods and landslides in Venezuela that killed some 20,000 to 50,000 people, the researchers reported.

“I think that this is just one aspect of the many things that could happen with climate change, and so I think that it’s very important that we move in the direction of reducing emissions,” said Antonietta Capotondi, an expert unaffiliated with the new study and a research scientist at Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory.

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--- Linda Carroll, NBC News Contributor