A review is given of the meaning of the term “El Niño” and how it has changed in time, so there is no universal single definition. This needs to be recognized for scientific uses, and precision can only be achieved if the particular definition is identified in each use to reduce the possibility of misunderstanding. For quantitative purposes, possible definitions are explored that match the El Niños identified historically after 1950, and it is suggested that an El Niño can be said to occur if 5-month running means of sea surface temperature (SST) anomalies in the Niño 3.4 region (5°N–5°S, 120°–170°W) exceed 0.4°C for 6 months or more. With this definition, El Niños occur 31% of the time and La Niñas (with an equivalent definition) occur 23% of the time. The histogram of Niño 3.4 SST anomalies reveals a bimodal character. An advantage of such a definition is that it allows the beginning, end, duration, and magnitude of each event to be quantified. Most El Niños begin in the northern spring or perhaps summer and peak from November to January in sea surface temperatures.

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Footnotes

*The National Center for Atmospheric Research is sponsored by the National Science Foundation.