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Huijing Zhang
,
Wenjun Zhang
,
Xin Geng
,
Feng Jiang
, and
Malte F. Stuecker

Abstract

Many previous studies have shown that El Niño exhibits a strong seasonality in its teleconnections and regional climate impacts. Aside from the seasonal synchronization of El Niño anomalous sea surface temperature (SST) itself, seasonal differences in its associated climate impacts could also stem from the local background seasonal cycle. During the El Niño developing boreal autumn (August–October) and decaying boreal spring (February–April), the El Niño–associated precipitation anomalies display remarkably different patterns over the eastern tropical Pacific despite similar SST anomaly amplitudes. This strong seasonality can be largely attributed to the seasonal cycle of the eastern tropical Pacific SST background state with the cold tongue being strongest in autumn and weakest in spring. Therefore, the El Niño–associated SST in spring is likely to exceed the convection threshold on both sides of the equator, leading to an approximately symmetric precipitation response about the equator. In contrast, this symmetric precipitation response is absent in autumn since the SST near and south of the equator remains below the threshold and pronounced eastern tropical precipitation anomalies can only be observed in the warm Northern Hemisphere. This seasonality is mainly embodied in eastern Pacific (EP) El Niño events rather than central Pacific (CP) El Niño events since the westward-shifted warm SST anomalies for the latter cannot establish an effective cooperation with the cold tongue SST annual cycle. This study has important implications for regional climate prediction by involving the different local precipitation responses over the tropical eastern Pacific.

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Feng Jiang
,
Wenjun Zhang
,
Malte F. Stuecker
, and
Fei-Fei Jin

Abstract

Previous studies have shown that nonlinear atmospheric interactions between ENSO and the warm pool annual cycle generates a combination mode (C-mode), which is responsible for the termination of strong El Niño events and the development of the anomalous anticyclone over the western North Pacific (WNP). However, the C-mode has experienced a remarkable decadal change in its characteristics around the early 2000s. The C-mode in both pre- and post-2000 exhibits its characteristic anomalous atmospheric circulation meridional asymmetry but with somewhat different spatial structures and time scales. During 1979–99, the C-mode pattern featured prominent westerly surface wind anomalies in the southeastern tropical Pacific and anticyclonic anomalies over the WNP. In contrast, the C-mode-associated westerly anomalies were shifted farther westward to the central Pacific and the WNP anticyclone was farther westward extended and weaker after 2000. These different C-mode patterns were accompanied by distinct climate impacts over the Indo-Pacific region. The decadal differences of the C-mode are tightly connected with the ENSO regime shift around 2000; that is, the occurrence of central Pacific (CP) El Niño events with quasi-biennial and decadal periodicities increased while the occurrence of eastern Pacific (EP) El Niño events with quasi-quadrennial periodicity decreased. The associated near-annual combination tone periodicities of the C-mode also changed in accordance with these changes in the dominant ENSO frequency between the two time periods. Numerical model experiments further confirm the impacts of the ENSO regime shift on the C-mode characteristics. These results have important implications for understanding the C-mode dynamics and improving predictions of its climate impacts.

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Feng Jiang
,
Wenjun Zhang
,
Xin Geng
,
Malte F. Stuecker
, and
Chao Liu

ABSTRACT

Here we investigate the response of boreal spring precipitation over southern China (SPSC) to central Pacific (CP) El Niño based on observational datasets. While there is enhanced precipitation over southern China during the decaying boreal spring of eastern Pacific (EP) El Niño events, so far no clear precipitation response has been detected during the same decaying stage for CP El Niño composites. Here we show that around half of the CP El Niño events coincide with enhanced SPSC (wet CP El Niño), while the other half are accompanied by reduced SPSC (dry CP El Niño). These two types of CP El Niño events bear dramatically different evolution features in their respective tropical sea surface temperature anomaly (SSTA) patterns. Wet CP El Niño events are characterized by an SSTA longitudinal position confined to the tropical central-eastern Pacific. In contrast, dry CP El Niño events exhibit a clear westward propagation of SSTAs during their evolution, with maximum SSTAs located to the west of the date line after their mature phase. These different longitudinal positions of positive SSTAs during their decaying phase result in distinct meridional structures of the tropical Pacific convection anomalies as well as the ENSO combination mode (C-mode) response. An anomalous low-level anticyclone is evident over the western North Pacific during wet CP El Niño events during their decaying phase, while an anomalous cyclonic circulation is found for dry CP El Niño events. We emphasize that the impacts of CP El Niño on the SPSC depend crucially on the simultaneous zonal location of warm SSTAs in the tropical Pacific.

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Malte F. Stuecker
,
Fei-Fei Jin
,
Axel Timmermann
, and
Shayne McGregor

Abstract

In this reply, the authors clarify the points made in the original paper in 2015 and show that issues raised in the comment by Li et al. are unsubstantiated. The main conclusions can be summarized as follows: 1) The time evolution of the anomalous low-level northwest Pacific anticyclone (NWP-AC) is largely caused by combination mode (C-mode) dynamics. 2) The theoretical C-mode index accurately captures the rapid development of the anomalous NWP-AC. 3) Thermodynamic air–sea coupling does not play a major role for the rapid phase transition of the NWP-AC and the meridionally antisymmetric atmospheric circulation response during the peak phase of El Niño events in boreal winter.

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Malte F. Stuecker
,
Fei-Fei Jin
,
Axel Timmermann
, and
Shayne McGregor

Abstract

Nonlinear interactions between ENSO and the western Pacific warm pool annual cycle generate an atmospheric combination mode (C-mode) of wind variability. The authors demonstrate that C-mode dynamics are responsible for the development of an anomalous low-level northwest Pacific anticyclone (NWP-AC) during El Niño events. The NWP-AC is embedded in a large-scale meridionally antisymmetric Indo-Pacific atmospheric circulation response and has been shown to exhibit large impacts on precipitation in Asia. In contrast to previous studies, the authors find the role of air–sea coupling in the Indian Ocean and northwestern Pacific only of secondary importance for the NWP-AC genesis. Moreover, the NWP-AC is clearly marked in the frequency domain with near-annual combination tones, which have been overlooked in previous Indo-Pacific climate studies. Furthermore, the authors hypothesize a positive feedback loop involving the anomalous low-level NWP-AC through El Niño and C-mode interactions: the development of the NWP-AC as a result of the C-mode acts to rapidly terminate El Niño events. The subsequent phase shift from retreating El Niño conditions toward a developing La Niña phase terminates the low-level cyclonic circulation response in the central Pacific and thus indirectly enhances the NWP-AC and allows it to persist until boreal summer. Anomalous local circulation features in the Indo-Pacific (e.g., the NWP-AC) can be considered a superposition of the quasi-symmetric linear ENSO response and the meridionally antisymmetric annual cycle modulated ENSO response (C-mode). The authors emphasize that it is not adequate to assess ENSO impacts by considering only interannual time scales. C-mode dynamics are an essential (extended) part of ENSO and result in a wide range of deterministic high-frequency variability.

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Xin Geng
,
Wenjun Zhang
,
Fei-Fei Jin
,
Malte F. Stuecker
, and
Aaron F. Z. Levine

Abstract

Recent studies demonstrated the existence of a conspicuous atmospheric combination mode (C-mode) originating from nonlinear interactions between El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and the Pacific warm pool annual cycle (AC). Here we find that the C-mode exhibits prominent decadal amplitude variations during the ENSO decaying boreal spring season. It is revealed that the Atlantic multidecadal oscillation (AMO) can largely explain this waxing and waning in amplitude. A robust positive correlation between ENSO and the C-mode is detected during a negative AMO phase but not during a positive phase. Similar results can also be found in the relationship of ENSO with 1) the western North Pacific (WNP) anticyclone and 2) spring precipitation over southern China, both of which are closely associated with the C-mode. We suggest that ENSO property changes due to an AMO modulation play a crucial role in determining these decadal shifts. During a positive AMO phase, ENSO events are distinctly weaker than those in an AMO negative phase. In addition, El Niño events concurrent with a positive AMO phase tend to exhibit a westward-shifted sea surface temperature (SST) anomaly pattern. These SST characteristics during the positive AMO phase are both not conducive to the development of the meridionally asymmetric C-mode atmospheric circulation pattern and thus reduce the ENSO/C-mode correlation on decadal time scales. These observations can be realistically reproduced by a coupled general circulation model (CGCM) experiment in which North Atlantic SSTs are nudged to reproduce a 50-yr sinusoidally varying AMO evolution. Our conclusion carries important implications for understanding seasonally modulated ENSO dynamics and multiscale climate impacts over East Asia.

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Malte F. Stuecker
,
Christina Karamperidou
,
Alison D. Nugent
,
Giuseppe Torri
,
Sloan Coats
, and
Steven Businger
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Shayne McGregor
,
Axel Timmermann
,
Niklas Schneider
,
Malte F. Stuecker
, and
Matthew H. England

Abstract

During large El Niño events the westerly wind response to the eastern equatorial Pacific sea surface temperature anomalies (SSTAs) shifts southward during boreal winter and early spring, reaching latitudes of 5°–7°S. The resulting meridional asymmetry, along with a related seasonal weakening of wind anomalies on the equator are key elements in the termination of strong El Niño events. Using an intermediate complexity atmosphere model it is demonstrated that these features result from a weakening of the climatological wind speeds south of the equator toward the end of the calendar year. The reduced climatological wind speeds, which are associated with the seasonal intensification of the South Pacific convergence zone (SPCZ), lead to anomalous boundary layer Ekman pumping and a reduced surface momentum damping of the combined boundary layer/lower-troposphere surface wind response to El Niño. This allows the associated zonal wind anomalies to shift south of the equator. Furthermore, using a linear shallow-water ocean model it is demonstrated that this southward wind shift plays a prominent role in changing zonal mean equatorial heat content and is solely responsible for establishing the meridional asymmetry of thermocline depth in the turnaround (recharge/discharge) phase of ENSO. This result calls into question the sole role of oceanic Rossby waves in the phase synchronized termination of El Niño events and suggests that the development of a realistic climatological SPCZ in December–February/March–May (DJF/MAM) is one of the key factors in the seasonal termination of strong El Niño events.

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Matthew J. Widlansky
,
Axel Timmermann
,
Shayne McGregor
,
Malte F. Stuecker
, and
Wenju Cai

Abstract

During strong El Niño events, sea level drops around some tropical western Pacific islands by up to 20–30 cm. Such events (referred to as taimasa in Samoa) expose shallow reefs, thereby causing severe damage to associated coral ecosystems and contributing to the formation of microatolls. During the termination of strong El Niño events, a southward movement of weak trade winds and the development of an anomalous anticyclone in the Philippine Sea are shown to force an interhemispheric sea level seesaw in the tropical Pacific that enhances and prolongs extreme low sea levels in the southwestern Pacific. Spectral features, in addition to wind-forced linear shallow water ocean model experiments, identify a nonlinear interaction between El Niño and the annual cycle as the main cause of these sea level anomalies.

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Karl Stein
,
Axel Timmermann
,
Niklas Schneider
,
Fei-Fei Jin
, and
Malte F. Stuecker

Abstract

One of the key characteristics of El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is its synchronization to the annual cycle, which manifests in the tendency of ENSO events to peak during boreal winter. Current theory offers two possible mechanisms to account the for ENSO synchronization: frequency locking of ENSO to periodic forcing by the annual cycle, or the effect of the seasonally varying background state of the equatorial Pacific on ENSO’s coupled stability. Using a parametric recharge oscillator (PRO) model of ENSO, the authors test which of these scenarios provides a better explanation of the observed ENSO synchronization.

Analytical solutions of the PRO model show that the annual modulation of the growth rate parameter results directly in ENSO’s seasonal variance, amplitude modulation, and 2:1 phase synchronization to the annual cycle. The solutions are shown to be applicable to the long-term behavior of the damped model excited by stochastic noise, which produces synchronization characteristics that agree with the observations and can account for the variety of ENSO synchronization behavior in state-of-the-art coupled general circulation models. The model also predicts spectral peaks at “combination tones” between ENSO and the annual cycle that exist in the observations and many coupled models. In contrast, the nonlinear frequency entrainment scenario predicts the existence of a spectral peak at the biennial frequency corresponding to the observed 2:1 phase synchronization. Such a peak does not exist in the observed ENSO spectrum. Hence, it can be concluded that the seasonal modulation of the coupled stability is responsible for the synchronization of ENSO events to the annual cycle.

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