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Andrew M. Moore, Jérôme Vialard, Anthony T. Weaver, David L. T. Anderson, Richard Kleeman, and Jolie R. Johnson


In this paper the structure and dynamics of the optimal perturbations of tropical low-frequency coupled ocean–atmosphere oscillations relevant to El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) are explored. These optimal perturbations yield information about potential precursors for ENSO events, and about the fundamental dynamical processes that may control perturbation growth and limit the predictability of interannual variability. The present study uses a hierarchy of hybrid coupled models. Each model is configured for the tropical Pacific Ocean and shares a common ocean general circulation model. Three different atmospheric models are used: a statistical model, a dynamical model, and a combination of a dynamical model and boundary layer model. Each coupled model possesses a coupled ocean–atmosphere eigenmode oscillation with a period of the order of several years. The properties of these various eigenmodes and their corresponding adjoint eigenmodes are explored.

The optimal perturbations of each coupled model for two different perturbation growth norms are also examined, and their behavior can be understood in terms of the properties of the aforementioned eigenmode oscillations. It is found that the optimal perturbation spectrum of each coupled model is primarily dominated by one member. The dominant optimal perturbation evolves into the most unstable eigenmode of the system. The structure of the optimal perturbations of each model is found to be controlled by the dynamics of the atmospheric model and air–sea interaction processes. For the coupled model with a statistical atmosphere, the optimal perturbation center of action is spread across the entire tropical Pacific in the form of a dipole. For the coupled models that include deep atmospheric convection, the optimal perturbation center of action is primarily confined to the western Pacific warm pool. In addition, the degree of nonnormality of the eigenmodes is controlled by the atmospheric model dynamics. These findings are in general agreement with the results obtained from intermediate coupled models. In particular, the atmospheric models used here have also been used in intermediate coupled models that have been employed extensively in previous studies of the optimal perturbations of El Niño–Southern Oscillation. Thus, a direct comparison of the optimal perturbation behavior of those intermediate models and the optimal perturbations of the hybrid models used here can be made.

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