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Ying-Quei Chen
David S. Battisti
T. N. Palmer
Joseph Barsugli
, and
E. S. Sarachik


The authors examine the sensitivity of the Battisti coupled atmosphere–ocean model—considered as a forecast model for the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO)—to perturbations in the sea surface temperature (SST) field applied at the beginning of a model integration. The spatial structures of the fastest growing SST perturbations are determined by singular vector analysis of an approximation to the propagator for the linearized system. Perturbation growth about the following four reference trajectories is considered: (i) the annual cycle, (ii) a freely evolving model ENSO cycle with an annual cycle in the basic state, (iii) the annual mean basic state, and (iv) a freely evolving model ENSO cycle with an annual mean basic state. Singular vectors with optimal growth over periods of 3, 6, and 9 months are computed.

The magnitude of maximum perturbation growth is highly dependent on both the phase of the seasonal cycle and the phase of the ENSO cycle at which the perturbation is applied and on the duration over which perturbations are allowed to evolve. However, the spatial structure of the optimal perturbation is remarkably insensitive to these factors. The structure of the optimal perturbation consists of an east–west dipole spanning the entire tropical Pacific basin superimposed on a north–south dipole in the eastern tropical Pacific. A simple physical interpretation for the optimal pattern is provided. In most cases investigated, there is only one structure that exhibits growth.

Maximum perturbation growth takes place for integrations that include the period June–August, and the minimum growth for integrations that include the period January–April. Maxima in potential growth also occur for forecasts of ENSO onset and decay, while minima occur for forecasts initialized during the beginning of a warm event, after the transition from a warm to a cold event, and continuing through the cold event. The physical processes responsible for the large variation in the amplitude of the optimal perturbation growth are identified. The implications of these results for the predictability of short-term climate in the tropical Pacific are discussed.

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