National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration
United States Department of Commerce


FY 2014

Late-twentieth-century emergence of the El Niño propagation asymmetry and future projections

Santoso, A., S. McGregor, F.-F. Jin, W. Cai, M.H. England, S.-I. An, M.J. McPhaden, and E. Guilyardi

Nature, 504, 126–130, doi: 10.1038/nature12683 (2013)

The El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is the Earth’s most prominent source of interannual climate variability, exerting profound worldwide effects. Despite decades of research, its behaviour continues to challenge scientists. In the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean, the anomalously cool sea surface temperatures (SSTs) found during La Niña events and the warm waters of modest El Niño events both propagate westwards, as in the seasonal cycle. In contrast, SST anomalies propagate eastwards during extreme El Niño events, prominently in the post-1976 period, spurring unusual weather events worldwide with costly consequences. The cause of this propagation asymmetry is currently unknown. Here we trace the cause of the asymmetry to the variations in upper ocean currents in the equatorial Pacific, whereby the westward-flowing currents are enhanced during La Niña events but reversed during extreme El Niño events. Our results highlight that propagation asymmetry is favoured when the westward mean equatorial currents weaken, as is projected to be the case under global warming. By analysing past and future climate simulations of an ensemble of models with more realistic propagation, we find a doubling in the occurrences of El Niño events that feature prominent eastward propagation characteristics in a warmer world. Our analysis thus suggests that more frequent emergence of propagation asymmetry will be an indication of the Earth’s warming climate.

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