National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration
United States Department of Commerce


FY 2017

Ocean processes affecting the twenty-first century shift in ENSO SST variability

Guan, C., and M.J. McPhaden

J. Climate, 29(19), 6861–6879, doi: 10.1175/JCLI-D-15-0870.1 (2016)

Sea surface temperature (SST) variability associated with El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) slightly increased in the central Pacific Ocean but weakened significantly in the eastern Pacific at the beginning of twenty-first century relative to 1980–99. This decadal shift led to the greater prominence central Pacific (CP) El Niño events during the 2000s relative to the previous two decades, which were dominated by eastern Pacific (EP) events. To expand upon previous studies that have examined this shift in ENSO variability, temperature and temperature variance budgets are examined in the mixed layer of the Niño-3 (5°S–5°N, 150°–90°W) and Niño-4 (5°S–5°N, 160°E–150°W) regions from seven ocean model products spanning the period 1980–2010. This multimodel-product-based approach provides a robust assessment of dominant mechanisms that account for decadal changes in two key index regions. A temperature variance budget perspective on the role of thermocline feedbacks in the ENSO cycle based on recharge oscillator theory is also presented. As found in previous studies, thermocline and zonal advective feedbacks are the most important positive feedbacks for generating ENSO SST variance, and thermodynamic damping is the largest negative feedback for damping ENSO variance. Consistent with the shift toward more CP El Niños after 2000, thermocline feedbacks experienced a substantial reduction from 1980 to 1999 and into the 2000s, while zonal advective feedbacks were less affected. Negative feedbacks likewise weakened after 2000, particularly thermal damping in the Niño-3 region and the nonlinear sink of variance in both regions.

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