National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration
United States Department of Commerce


FY 2020

The interdecadal shift of ENSO properties in 1999/2000: A review

Hu, Z.-Z., A. Kumar, B. Huang, J. Zhu, M. L’Heureux, M.J. McPhaden, and J.-Y. Yu

J. Climate, 33(11), 4441–4462, doi: 10.1175/JCLI-D-19-0316.1, View online (2020)

Following the interdecadal shift of El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) properties that occurred in 1976/77, another regime shift happened in 1999/2000 that featured a decrease of variability and an increase in ENSO frequency. Specifically, the frequency spectrum of Niño-3.4 sea surface temperature shifted from dominant variations at quasi-quadrennial (~4 yr) periods during 1979–99 to weaker fluctuations at quasi-biennial (~2 yr) periods during 2000–18. Also, the spectrum of warm water volume (WWV) index had almost no peak in 2000–18, implying a nearly white noise process. The regime shift was associated with an enhanced zonal gradient of the mean state, a westward shift in the atmosphere–ocean coupling in the tropical Pacific, and an increase in the static stability of the troposphere. This shift had several important implications. The whitening of the subsurface ocean temperature led to a breakdown of the relationship between WWV and ENSO, reducing the efficacy of WWV as a key predictor for ENSO and thus leading to a decrease in ENSO prediction skill. Another consequence of the higher ENSO frequency after 1999/2000 was that the forecasted peak of sea surface temperature anomaly often lagged that observed by several months, and the lag increased with the lead time. The ENSO regime shift may have altered ENSO influences on extratropical climate. Thus, the regime shift of ENSO in 1999/2000 as well as the model default may account for the higher false alarm and lower skill in predicting ENSO since 1999/2000.

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