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The Termination of the 1997–98 El Niño. Part I: Mechanisms of Oceanic Change

Gabriel A. VecchiNOAA/Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, Princeton, New Jersey, and UCAR Visiting Scientist Program, Boulder, Colorado

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D. E. HarrisonJoint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Oceans, University of Washington, and NOAA/Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, Seattle, Washington

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Abstract

The 1997–98 El Niño was both unusually strong and terminated unusually. Warm eastern equatorial Pacific (EEqP) sea surface temperature anomalies (SSTAs) exceeded 4°C at the event peak and lasted well into boreal spring of 1998, even though subsurface temperatures began cooling in December 1997. The oceanic processes that controlled this unusual termination are explored here and can be characterized by three features: (i) eastward propagating equatorial Pacific thermocline (Ztc) shoaling beginning in the central Pacific in November 1997; (ii) persistent warm EEqP SSTA between December 1997 and May 1998, despite strong EEqP Ztc shoaling (and subsurface cooling); and (iii) an abrupt cooling of EEqP SSTA in early May 1998 that exceeded 4°C within two weeks.

It is shown here that these changes can be understood in terms of the oceanic response to changes to the meridional structure of the near-equatorial zonal wind field. Equatorial near-date-line westerly wind anomalies greatly decreased in late 1997, associated with a southward shift of convective and wind anomalies. In the EEqP, equatorial easterlies disappeared (reappeared) in late January (early May) 1998, driving the springtime extension (abrupt termination) of this El Niño event. The authors suggest that the wind changes arise from fundamentally meridional processes and are tied to the annual cycle of insolation.

* Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean Contribution Number 943 and Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory Contribution Number 2518

Corresponding author address: Dr. Gabriel A. Vecchi, NOAA/Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, Princeton University, Forrestal Campus, Rte. 1, P.O. Box 308, Princeton, NJ 08542-0308. Email: Gabriel.A.Vecchi@noaa.gov

Abstract

The 1997–98 El Niño was both unusually strong and terminated unusually. Warm eastern equatorial Pacific (EEqP) sea surface temperature anomalies (SSTAs) exceeded 4°C at the event peak and lasted well into boreal spring of 1998, even though subsurface temperatures began cooling in December 1997. The oceanic processes that controlled this unusual termination are explored here and can be characterized by three features: (i) eastward propagating equatorial Pacific thermocline (Ztc) shoaling beginning in the central Pacific in November 1997; (ii) persistent warm EEqP SSTA between December 1997 and May 1998, despite strong EEqP Ztc shoaling (and subsurface cooling); and (iii) an abrupt cooling of EEqP SSTA in early May 1998 that exceeded 4°C within two weeks.

It is shown here that these changes can be understood in terms of the oceanic response to changes to the meridional structure of the near-equatorial zonal wind field. Equatorial near-date-line westerly wind anomalies greatly decreased in late 1997, associated with a southward shift of convective and wind anomalies. In the EEqP, equatorial easterlies disappeared (reappeared) in late January (early May) 1998, driving the springtime extension (abrupt termination) of this El Niño event. The authors suggest that the wind changes arise from fundamentally meridional processes and are tied to the annual cycle of insolation.

* Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean Contribution Number 943 and Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory Contribution Number 2518

Corresponding author address: Dr. Gabriel A. Vecchi, NOAA/Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, Princeton University, Forrestal Campus, Rte. 1, P.O. Box 308, Princeton, NJ 08542-0308. Email: Gabriel.A.Vecchi@noaa.gov

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