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The Tropical Ocean-Global Atmosphere observing system: A decade of progress

Michael J. McPhaden,1 Antonio J. Busalacchi,2 Robert Cheney,3 Jean-René Donguy,4 Kenneth S. Gage,5 David Halpern,6 Ming Ji,7 Paul Julian,8 Gary Meyers,9 Gary T. Mitchum,10 Pearn P. Niiler,11 Joel Picaut,12,13 Richard W. Reynolds,7 Neville Smith,14 and Kensuke Takeuchi15

1Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, NOAA, Seattle, Washington
2NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland
3National Ocean Service, NOAA, Silver Spring, Maryland
4Institut Français de Recherche Scientifique pour le Développement en Coopération, Plouzane, France
5Aeronomy Laboratory, NOAA, Boulder, Colorado
6Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena
7National Centers for Environmental Prediction, NOAA, Camp Springs, Maryland
8Suitland, Maryland
9Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, Tasmania, Australia
10Department of Marine Science, University of South Florida, Saint Petersburg
11Scripps Institution of Oceanography, La Jolla, California
12Institut Français de Recherche Scientifique pour le Développement on Coopération
13Now at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland
14Bureau of Meteorology Research Centre, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
15Institute of Low Temperature Science, Hokkaido University, Sapporo, Japan

Journal of Geophysical Research, 103(C7), 14,169-14,240 (1998).
Copyright ©1998 by the American Geophysical Union. Further electronic distribution is not allowed.

1.  Introduction

El Niño (EN) is characterized by a large-scale weakening of the trade winds and warming of the surface layers in the eastern and central equatorial Pacific Ocean. El Niño events occur irregularly at intervals of roughly 2–7 years, although the average is about once every 3–4 years [Quinn et al., 1987]. They typically last 12–18 months, and are accompanied by swings in the Southern Oscillation (SO), an interannual seesaw in tropical sea level pressure between the eastern and western hemispheres [Walker, 1924]. During El Niño, unusually high atmospheric sea level pressures develop in the western tropical Pacific and Indian Ocean regions, and unusually low sea level pressures develop in the southeastern tropical Pacific. Bjerknes [1966, 1969] was the first to link swings in the Southern Oscillation to El Niño events, proposing that the two phenomena were generated by coupled ocean-atmosphere interactions. SO tendencies for unusually low pressures west of the date line and high pressures east of the date line have also been linked to periods of anomalously cold equatorial Pacific sea surface temperatures (SSTs) sometimes referred to as La Niña [Philander, 1990]. The full range of SO variability, including both anomalously warm and cold equatorial SSTs, is often referred to as ENSO.

ENSO is associated with shifts in the location and intensity of deep convection and rainfall in the tropical Pacific. During El Niño events, drought conditions prevail in northern Australia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, and excessive rains occur in the island states of the central tropical Pacific and along the west coast of South America. Shifts in the pattern of deep convection in the tropical Pacific also affect the general circulation of the atmosphere and extend the impacts of ENSO to other tropical ocean basins and to midlatitudes [Rasmusson and Wallace, 1983; Ropelewski and Halpert, 1986, 1987; Halpert and Ropelewski, 1992; Trenberth et al., this issue]. During El Niño most of Canada and the northwestern United States tend to experience mild winters, and the states bordering the Gulf of Mexico tend to be cooler and wetter than normal. California has experienced a disproportionate share of episodes of heavy rainfall during El Niño winters such as 1982–1983, 1991–1992, and 1994–1995. Atlantic hurricanes tend to be less frequent during warm events and more frequent during cold events [Gray et al., 1993]. El Niño events also disrupt the marine ecology of the tropical Pacific and the Pacific coast regions of the Americas, affecting the mortality and distribution of commercially valuable fish stocks and other marine organisms [Barber and Chavez, 1983; Dessier and Donguy, 1987; Pearcy and Schoener, 1987; Lehodey et al., 1997]. Thus, though originating in the tropical Pacific, ENSO has socioeconomic consequences that are felt worldwide.

The widespread and systematic influence of ENSO on the ocean-atmosphere system, and the potential that it might be predictable seasons to years in advance, led to initiation of the international Tropical Ocean-Global Atmosphere (TOGA) Program, a 10-year study (1985–1994) of seasonal-to-interannual (also referred to as short-term) climate variability. The goals of the TOGA program were [World Climate Research Program, 1985, p. vii].

[1.] to gain a description of the tropical oceans and the global atmosphere as a time dependent system, in order to determine the extent to which this system is predictable on time scales of months to years, and to understand the mechanisms and processes underlying that predictability;
[2.] to study the feasibility of modeling the coupled ocean-atmosphere system for the purpose of predicting its variability on timescales of months to years; and
[3.] to provide the scientific background for designing an observing and data transmission system for operational prediction if this capability is demonstrated by the coupled ocean-atmosphere system.

The scientific background and rationale for TOGA was spelled out in several planning documents [e.g., World Climate Research Program, 1985; National Research Council, 1983, 1986]. Prior to TOGA, a basic description of oceanic and atmospheric variability associated with El Niño existed [e.g., Rasmusson and Carpenter, 1982], as did a basic description of tropical/extratropical atmospheric teleconnections in the northern hemisphere [e.g., Horel and Wallace, 1981]. Atmospheric general circulation models had shown a sensitivity both in the tropics and at higher latitudes to underlying equatorial Pacific SST anomalies, and theories were emerging on how tropical forcing gave rise to observed teleconnection patterns [e.g., Hoskins and Karoly, 1981]. Relatively simple wind-forced ocean models prior to TOGA were capable of simulating some aspects of seasonal-to-interannual variability associated with sea level variations in the Pacific [e.g., Busalacchi and O'Brien, 1980; Busalacchi and O'Brien, 1981; Busalacchi et al., 1983]. Initial attempts to quantitatively assess the role of ocean dynamics in controlling interannual variations in SST were underway [Gill, 1983]. Also, ocean general circulation models with explicit mixed layer thermodynamics were being developed for improved simulations of SST variability [e.g., Schopf and Cane, 1983]. Coupled tropical ocean-atmosphere models were in their infancy prior to TOGA. They showed promise though in their ability to elucidate possible mechanisms responsible for ocean-atmosphere feedbacks and in their ability to crudely simulate aspects of the ENSO cycle [McCreary, 1983; Philander et al., 1984].

Theories regarding the mechanisms responsible for El Niño variations in the ocean were likewise developing [e.g., Wyrtki, 1975; McCreary, 1976; Hurlburt et al., 1976]. The roles of ocean dynamics and, in particular, wind-forced equatorial Kelvin and Rossby waves in affecting large-scale redistribution of mass and heat in the equatorial band were widely regarded as crucial aspects of the ocean's role in the ENSO cycle. The rapid response of the equatorial ocean to wind forcing and the ability of equatorial waves to affect remote parts of the basin on relatively short timescales distinguish the tropics from higher latitudes where planetary scale waves propagate much more slowly. Substantial responses in equatorial currents and sea surface heights to relatively short-duration wind events were evident in observations before the start of TOGA [Knox and Halpern, 1982; Eriksen et al., 1983]. These observations suggested the potential for remotely forced changes in SST due to wave-induced changes in horizontal and vertical advection and upper ocean mixing. Thus understanding the oceanic processes giving rise to SST variability in the tropical Pacific was a more challenging problem than at midlatitudes, where SST variations on seasonal and interannual timescales are generated primarily by local air-sea heat exchange [Gill and Niiler, 1973].

Much of the progress in oceanographic studies related to El Niño in the 1970s and early 1980s was stimulated by fieldwork and modeling efforts as part of the Equatorial Pacific Ocean Climate Studies (EPOCS) program [Hayes et al., 1986], the North Pacific Experiment (NORPAX) [Wyrtki et al., 1981], and the Pacific Equatorial Ocean Dynamics (PEQUOD) experiment [Eriksen, 1987]. These programs provided new data for basic description of phenomenology, for developing and testing dynamical hypotheses, and for model development and validation [Halpern, 1996]. Impressive though the scientific advances were during this period, they were still inadequate in many respects. To quote from the document U.S. Participation in the TOGA Program [National Research Council, 1986, p. 6–7]:

[1.] The subsurface signature of El Niño events and the time-dependent fluxes of momentum and energy at the air-sea interface are known only qualitatively, and existing observations are inadequate to define them with the accuracy needed for initializing and verifying models.
[2.] Major uncertainties still exist concerning the tropical and southern hemisphere atmospheric circulations and their interannual variability.
[3.] The processes that determine the sea surface temperature distribution and the surface wind field over the tropics are not yet well understood.
[4.] The fundamental behavior and predictability of the coupled climate system are just beginning to be understood.

TOGA, initiated by the World Climate Research Program [1985], provided a framework for coordinated, sustained international efforts aimed at addressing these shortcomings. Implementation of TOGA was to be carried out with major new initiatives in modeling, process-oriented field studies, and long-term observations. Efforts in these areas were to be highly interactive and mutually reinforcing. Models and the results of process studies would be used to help guide the development of long-term observational systems. Long-term observations in turn would provide a large-scale, long-term framework in which to interpret the results of shorter-duration, geographically focused, intensive process studies. Long-term observations would also be used to validate models, to aid in the development of parameterization schemes for subgrid scale model physics, and to initialize dynamical model-based climate forecasting schemes.

The need for an improved observing system was underscored during the planning stages of TOGA in the early 1980s, when the scientific community was caught completely off guard by the 1982–1983 El Niño, the strongest in over a hundred years (see Appendix A for details). This El Niño was neither predicted nor even detected until several months after it had started. The lesson from this experience was obvious: an in situ observing system capable of delivering data in real time was urgently needed for improved monitoring, understanding, and prediction of El Niño and related phenomena. To meet these requirements, the TOGA Implementation Plan called for the development of a "thin monitoring" array of in situ measurements based on the enhancement of existing capabilities [International TOGA Project Office, 1992]. This observing system was to provide data on a basin scale for at least 10 years without significant temporal gaps, so that a continuous record of climate variability could be assembled. Ten years was considered the minimum length of time needed for a comprehensive study of interannual variability, the dominant mode of which was ENSO cycle.

The purpose of this paper is to describe the development of the TOGA observing system, to highlight scientific advances that have resulted from implementation of this system, and to summarize how data from this system have contributed to progress in developing models for improved climate analysis and prediction. We will emphasize oceanic, rather than atmospheric, components of the observing system, reflecting relative levels of effort expended on implementation during the TOGA decade. However, we will discuss TOGA efforts to augment the World Weather Watch for atmospheric measurements and to establish a specialized network of island-based wind profilers.

We will also emphasize in situ rather than satellite data. Satellite missions were generally initiated for purposes other than, or only partially motivated by, short-term climate research (e.g., operational weather prediction, national defense, general oceanographic and/or meteorological applications). Also, delays in satellite missions and/or temporal discontinuities in satellite data coverage heightened reliance on in situ measurements during the TOGA decade. For example, launch of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's scatterometer (NSCAT) for surface wind velocity estimates, originally scheduled for 1989, was repeatedly delayed until August 1996, almost 2 years after the end of TOGA. The satellite carrying NSCAT then failed prematurely, in June 1997, after being operational for only 8 months. Similarly, there was a 2-year hiatus in satellite sea level altimetry measurements between the end of the U.S. Navy's Geodetic Satellite (Geosat) mission in 1989 and the launch of European Space Agency's European Remote Sensing Satellite (ERS-1) in 1991. Nonetheless, we will discuss those satellite missions that contributed directly to TOGA objectives, particularly with regard to oceanic variability. Satellite measurements targeted more toward documenting and understanding atmospheric variability during TOGA, namely those for precipitation, water vapor, clouds, radiation, and evaporation [Lau and Busalacchi, 1993], are discussed in work by Wallace et al. [this issue].

Originally, it was anticipated that TOGA would develop a balanced research agenda with significant levels of effort directed at variations in all three tropical oceans [World Climate Research Program, 1985]. Important dynamical linkages between ENSO and climate variability in the other tropical ocean basins were evident [e.g., Barnett, 1983; Horel et al., 1986]. In addition, phenomena significantly impacting regional climate, such as the Indian monsoon [Webster et al., this issue], the Indian Ocean dipole [Nicholls, 1989], El Niño-like warm episodes in the equatorial Atlantic [Philander, 1986], and the so-called "Atlantic SST dipole" [Moura and Shukla, 1981], were not well understood in terms of underlying physical processes or potential predictability. However, the strength of the ENSO signal and its global impacts, coupled with limited financial resources, tended to concentrate most efforts in the Pacific. This review therefore focuses primarily on the Pacific. Recognizing that some elements of the observing system (satellite and in situ) are more global in character, this broader geographic coverage will be noted as appropriate.

Before concluding this introduction, we note that there is a range of interpretations in the literature on use of the terms El Niño, La Niña, and ENSO [Scientific Committee on Ocean Research (SCOR), 1983; Deser and Wallace, 1987; Enfield, 1989; Aceituno, 1992; Glantz, 1994; Trenberth, 1997]. Originally, the term El Niño (in reference to the Christ child) denoted a warm southward flowing ocean current that occurred every year around Christmas time off the west coast of Peru and Ecuador. The term was later restricted to unusually strong warmings that disrupted local fish and bird populations every few years. However, as a result of the frequent association of South American coastal temperature anomalies with interannual basin-scale equatorial warm events, El Niño has also become synonymous with larger-scale, climatically significant, warm events. There is not, however, unanimity in the use of the term El Niño. In this paper, therefore, we will adopt a standard of referring interchangeably to El Niño, ENSO warm event, or the warm phase of ENSO as those times of warm eastern and central equatorial Pacific SST anomalies. Conversely, the terms La Niña, ENSO cold event, or cold phase of ENSO will be used interchangeably to describe those times of cold eastern and central equatorial Pacific SST anomalies. As noted earlier, the terms ENSO and ENSO cycle will be used to describe the full range of variability observed in the Southern Oscillation Index, including both warm and cold events.

The rest of the paper is organized as follows. We begin in section 2 with a brief overview of El Niño as the primary phenomenological target of the TOGA observing system and then describe the observing system design in terms of primary variables measured and platforms used for implementation. Scientific progress through descriptive and diagnostic studies is reviewed in section 3. Section 4 describes how the TOGA observing system contributed to the development of dynamical models for seasonal-to-interannual climate analysis and prediction. The paper concludes in section 5 with a summary and a brief discussion of future directions for climate observations based on the successes of TOGA. Four appendices are included, the first of which (Appendix A) describes the failure to observe the onset of the 1982–1983 El Niño. Appendices B, C, and D provide historical background and technical information related to development of the in situ oceanographic components, the ocean-related satellite components, and the in situ meteorological components, respectively, of the observing system. A partial list of current World Wide Web sites for access to data and data analysis products engendered by the TOGA observing system can be found in the National Research Council's [1996] report on TOGA. In addition, reports on the TOGA observing system at various stages in its development can be found in work by McPhaden and Taft [1984], U.S. TOGA Office [1988], Nova University [1989], World Climate Research Program [1990b], and the National Research Council [1990].

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