National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration
United States Department of Commerce


FY 2013

A comparative stability analysis of Atlantic and Pacific Niño modes

Lübbecke, J.F., and M.J. McPhaden

J. Climate, 26(16), 5965–5980, doi: 10.1175/JCLI-D-12-00758.1 (2013)

El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) in the Pacific and the analogous Atlantic Niño mode are generated by processes involving coupled ocean–atmosphere interactions known as the Bjerknes feedback. It has been argued that the Atlantic Niño mode is more strongly damped than ENSO, which is presumed to be closer to neutrally stable. In this study the stability of ENSO and the Atlantic Niño mode is compared via an analysis of the Bjerknes stability index. This index is based on recharge oscillator theory and can be interpreted as the growth rate for coupled modes of ocean–atmosphere variability. Using observational data, an ocean reanalysis product, and output from an ocean general circulation model, the individual terms of the Bjerknes index are calculated for the first time for the Atlantic and then compared to results for the Pacific. Positive thermocline feedbacks in response to wind stress forcing favor anomaly growth in both basins, but they are twice as large in the Pacific compared to the Atlantic. Thermocline feedback is related to the fetch of the zonal winds, which is much greater in the equatorial Pacific than in the equatorial Atlantic due to larger basin size. Negative feedbacks are dominated by thermal damping of sea surface temperature anomalies in both basins. Overall, it is found that both ENSO and the Atlantic Niño mode are damped oscillators, but the Atlantic is more strongly damped than the Pacific primarily because of the weaker thermocline feedback

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