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The Curious Case of the EL Niño That Never Happened: A Perspective from 40 Years of Progress in Climate Research and Forecasting

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  • 1 NOAA/Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, Seattle, Washington, and Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, Honolulu, Hawaii
  • | 2 Department of Oceanography, and International Pacific Research Center, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, Honolulu, Hawaii
  • | 3 International Pacific Research Center, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, Honolulu, Hawaii
  • | 4 European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, Reading, United Kingdom
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Abstract

Forty years ago, Klaus Wyrtki of the University of Hawaii launched an “El Niño Watch” expedition to the eastern equatorial Pacific to document oceanographic changes that were expected to develop during the onset of an El Niño event in early 1975. He and his colleagues used a very simple atmospheric pressure index to predict the event and convinced the National Science Foundation and Office of Naval Research to support an expedition to the eastern Pacific on relatively short notice. An anomalous warming was detected during the first half of the expedition, but it quickly dissipated. Given the state of the art in El Niño research at the time, Wyrtki and colleagues could offer no explanation for why the initial warming failed to amplify, nor could they connect what they observed to what was happening in other parts of the basin prior to and during the expedition. With the benefit of hindsight, the authors provide a basin-scale context for what the expedition observed, elucidate the dynamical processes that gave rise to the abbreviated warming that was detected, and present retrospective forecasts of the event using modern coupled ocean–atmosphere dynamical model prediction systems. Reviewing this history highlights how early pioneers in El Niño research, despite the obstacles they faced, were able to make significant progress through bold initiatives that advanced the frontiers of our knowledge. It is also evident that, even though the scientific community today has a much deeper understanding of climate variability, more advanced observational capabilities, and sophisticated seasonal forecasting tools, skillful predictions of El Niño and its cold counterpart La Niña remain a major challenge.

CORRESPONDING AUTHOR: Michael J. McPhaden, NOAA/PMEL, 7600 Sand Point Way NE, Seattle, WA 98115, E-mail: michael.j.mcphaden@noaa.gov

Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory Contribution Number 4196, International Pacific Research Center Publication Number 1084, and School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology Publication Number 9218.

Abstract

Forty years ago, Klaus Wyrtki of the University of Hawaii launched an “El Niño Watch” expedition to the eastern equatorial Pacific to document oceanographic changes that were expected to develop during the onset of an El Niño event in early 1975. He and his colleagues used a very simple atmospheric pressure index to predict the event and convinced the National Science Foundation and Office of Naval Research to support an expedition to the eastern Pacific on relatively short notice. An anomalous warming was detected during the first half of the expedition, but it quickly dissipated. Given the state of the art in El Niño research at the time, Wyrtki and colleagues could offer no explanation for why the initial warming failed to amplify, nor could they connect what they observed to what was happening in other parts of the basin prior to and during the expedition. With the benefit of hindsight, the authors provide a basin-scale context for what the expedition observed, elucidate the dynamical processes that gave rise to the abbreviated warming that was detected, and present retrospective forecasts of the event using modern coupled ocean–atmosphere dynamical model prediction systems. Reviewing this history highlights how early pioneers in El Niño research, despite the obstacles they faced, were able to make significant progress through bold initiatives that advanced the frontiers of our knowledge. It is also evident that, even though the scientific community today has a much deeper understanding of climate variability, more advanced observational capabilities, and sophisticated seasonal forecasting tools, skillful predictions of El Niño and its cold counterpart La Niña remain a major challenge.

CORRESPONDING AUTHOR: Michael J. McPhaden, NOAA/PMEL, 7600 Sand Point Way NE, Seattle, WA 98115, E-mail: michael.j.mcphaden@noaa.gov

Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory Contribution Number 4196, International Pacific Research Center Publication Number 1084, and School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology Publication Number 9218.

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