National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration
United States Department of Commerce


FY 2006

Wind stress variations and interannual sea surface temperature anomalies in the eastern equatorial Pacific

Zhang, X., and M.J. McPhaden

J. Climate, 19(2), 226–241, doi: 10.1175/JCLI3618.1 (2006)

Vertical advection of temperature is the primary mechanism by which El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) time-scale sea surface temperature (SST) anomalies are generated in the eastern equatorial Pacific. Variations in vertical advection are mediated primarily by remote wind-forced thermocline displacements, which control the temperature of water upwelled to the surface. However, during some ENSO events, large wind stress variations occur in the eastern Pacific that in principle should affect local upwelling rates, the depth of the thermocline, and SST. In this study, the impact of these wind stress variations on the eastern equatorial Pacific is addressed using multiple linear regression analysis and a linear equatorial wave model. The regression analysis indicates that a zonal wind stress anomaly of 0.01 N m−2 leads to approximately a 1°C SST anomaly over the Niño-3 region (5°N–5°S, 90°–150°W) due to changes in local upwelling rates. Wind stress variations of this magnitude occurred in the eastern Pacific during the 1982/83 and 1997/98 El Niños, accounting for about 1/3 of the maximum SST anomaly during these events. The linear equatorial wave model also indicates that depending on the period in question, zonal wind stress variations in the eastern Pacific can work either with or against remote wind stress forcing from the central and western Pacific to determine the thermocline depth in the eastern Pacific. Thus, zonal wind stress variations in the eastern Pacific contribute to the generation of interannual SST anomalies through both changes in local upwelling rates and changes in thermocline depth. Positive feedbacks between the ocean and atmosphere in the eastern Pacific are shown to influence the evolution of the surface wind field, especially during strong El Niño events, emphasizing the coupled nature of variability in the region. Implications of these results for understanding the character of event-to-event differences in El Niño and La Niña are discussed.

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