El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events tend to peak at the end of the calendar year, a phenomenon called ENSO phase locking. This phase locking is a fundamental ENSO property that is determined by its basic dynamics. The conceptual ENSO recharge oscillator (RO) model is adopted to examine the ENSO phase-locking behavior in terms of its peak time, strength of phase locking, and asymmetry between El Niño and La Niña events. The RO model reproduces the main phase-locking characteristics found in observations, and the results show that the phase locking of ENSO is mainly dominated by the seasonal modulation of ENSO growth/decay rate. In addition, the linear/nonlinear mechanism of ENSO phase preference/phase locking is investigated using RO model. The difference between the nonlinear phase-locking mechanism and linear phase-preference mechanism is largely smoothed out in the presence of noise forcing. Further, the impact on ENSO phase locking from annual cycle modulation of the growth/decay rate, stochastic forcing, nonlinearity, and linear frequency are examined in the RO model. The preferred month of ENSO peak time depends critically on the phase and strength of the seasonal modulation of the ENSO growth/decay rate. Furthermore, the strength of phase locking is mainly controlled by the linear growth/decay rate, the amplitude of seasonal modulation of growth/decay rate, the amplitude of noise, the SST-dependent factor of multiplicative noise, and the linear frequency. The asymmetry of the sharpness of ENSO phase locking is induced by the asymmetric effect of state-dependent noise forcing in El Niño and La Niña events.

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