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Shayne McGregor and Axel Timmermann

Abstract

This study examines the response of El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) to massive volcanic eruptions in a suite of coupled general circulation model (CGCM) simulations utilizing the Community Climate System Model, version 3 (CCSM3). The authors find that the radiative forcing due to volcanic aerosols injected into the stratosphere induces a model climatic response that projects onto the ENSO mode and initially creates a La Niña event that peaks around the time the volcanic forcing peaks. The curl of the wind stress changes accompanying this volcanically forced equatorial region cooling acts to recharge the equatorial region heat. For weaker volcanic eruptions, this recharging results in an El Niño event about two seasons after the peak of the volcanic forcing. The results of the CCSM3 volcanic forcing experiments lead the authors to propose that the initial tropical Pacific Ocean response to volcanic forcing is determined by four different mechanisms—one process is the dynamical thermostat mechanism (the mean upwelling of anomalous temperature) and the other processes are related to the zonal equatorial gradients of the mean cloud albedo, Newtonian cooling, and mixed layer depth. The zonal gradient in CCSM3 set by both mixed layer depth and Newtonian cooling terms oppose the zonal sea surface temperature anomaly (SSTA) gradient produced by the dynamical thermostat and initially dominate the mixed layer zonal equatorial heat budget response. Applying this knowledge to a simple volcanically forced mixed layer equation using observed estimates of the spatially varying variables, the authors again find that the mixed layer depth and Newtonian cooling terms oppose and dominate the zonal SSTA gradient produced by the dynamical thermostat. This implies that the observed initial response to volcanic forcing should be La Niña–like not El Niño, as suggested by paleoclimate records.

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Esteban Abellán, Shayne McGregor, and Matthew H. England

Abstract

During the mature phase of El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events there is a southward shift of anomalous zonal winds (SWS), which has been suggested to play a role in the seasonal phase locking of ENSO. Motivated by the fact that coupled climate models tend to underestimate this feature, this study examines the representation of the SWS in phase 5 of the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP5). It is found that most models successfully reproduce the observed SWS, although the magnitude of the zonal wind stress anomaly is underestimated. Several significant differences between the models with and without the SWS are identified including biases in the magnitude and spatial distribution of precipitation and sea surface temperature (SST) anomalies during ENSO. Multiple-linear regression analysis suggests that the climatological meridional SST gradient as well as anomalous ENSO-driven convective activity over the northwest Pacific both might play a role in controlling the SWS. While the models that capture the SWS also simulate many more strong El Niño and La Niña events peaking at the correct time of year, the overall seasonal synchronization is still underestimated in these models. This is attributed to underestimated changes in warm water volume (WWV) during moderate El Niño events so that these events display relatively poor seasonal synchronization. Thus, while the SWS is an important metric, it is ultimately the magnitude and zonal extent of the wind changes that accompany this SWS that drive the changes in WWV and prime the system for termination.

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Axel Timmermann, Shayne McGregor, and Fei-Fei Jin

Abstract

Global sea level rise due to the thermal expansion of the warming oceans and freshwater input from melting glaciers and ice sheets is threatening to inundate low-lying islands and coastlines worldwide. At present the global mean sea level rises at 3.1 ± 0.7 mm yr−1 with an accelerating tendency. However, the magnitude of recent decadal sea level trends varies greatly spatially, attaining values of up to 10 mm yr−1 in some areas of the western tropical Pacific. Identifying the causes of recent regional sea level trends and understanding the patterns of future projected sea level change is of crucial importance. Using a wind-forced simplified dynamical ocean model, the study shows that the regional features of recent decadal and multidecadal sea level trends in the tropical Indo-Pacific can be attributed to changes in the prevailing wind regimes. Furthermore, it is demonstrated that within an ensemble of 10 state-of-the-art coupled general circulation models, forced by increasing atmospheric CO2 concentrations over the next century, wind-induced redistributions of upper-ocean water play a key role in establishing the spatial characteristics of projected regional sea level rise. Wind-related changes in near-surface mass and heat convergence near the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Kiribati, the Cook Islands, and French Polynesia oppose—but cannot cancel—the regional signal of global mean sea level rise.

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Shayne McGregor, Neil J. Holbrook, and Scott B. Power

Abstract

This study investigates the response of a stochastically forced coupled atmosphere–ocean model of the equatorial Pacific to off-equatorial wind stress anomaly forcing. The intermediate-complexity coupled ENSO model comprises a linear, first baroclinic mode, ocean shallow water model with a steady-state, two–pressure level (250 and 750 mb) atmospheric component that has been linearized about a state of rest on the β plane. Estimates of observed equatorial region stochastic forcing are calculated from NCEP–NCAR reanalysis surface winds for the period 1950–2006 using singular value decomposition. The stochastic forcing is applied to the model both with and without off-equatorial region wind stress anomalies (i.e., poleward of 12.5° latitude). It is found that the multiyear changes in the equatorial Pacific thermocline depth “background state” induced by off-equatorial forcing can affect the amplitude of modeled sea surface temperature anomalies by up to 1°C. Moreover, off-equatorial wind stress anomalies increased the modeled amplitude of the two biggest El Niño events in the twentieth century (1982/83 and 1997/98) by more than 0.5°C, resulting in a more realistic modeled response. These equatorial changes driven by off-equatorial region wind stress anomalies are highly predictable to two years in advance and may be useful as a physical basis to enhance multiyear probabilistic predictions of ENSO indices.

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Shayne McGregor, Neil J. Holbrook, and Scott B. Power

Abstract

Many modeling studies have been carried out to investigate the role of oceanic Rossby waves linking the off-equatorial and equatorial Pacific Ocean. Although the equatorial ocean response to off-equatorial wind stress forcing alone tends to be relatively small, it is clear that off-equatorial oceanic Rossby waves affect equatorial Pacific Ocean variability on interannual through to interdecadal time scales. In the present study, a hybrid coupled model (HCM) of the equatorial Pacific (between 12.5°S and 12.5°N) was developed and is used to estimate the magnitude of equatorial region variability arising from off-equatorial (poleward of 12.5° latitude) wind stress forcing. The HCM utilizes a reduced-gravity ocean shallow-water model and a statistical atmosphere derived from monthly output from a 100-yr Australian Bureau of Meteorology Research Centre (now the Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research) coupled general circulation model integration. The equatorial region wind stress forcing is found to dominate both the interannual and interdecadal SST variability. The equatorial response to off-equatorial wind stress forcing alone is insufficient to initiate an atmospheric feedback that significantly amplifies the original equatorial region variability. Consequently, the predictability of equatorial region SST anomalies (SSTAs) could be limited to ∼1 yr (the maximum time it takes an oceanic Rossby wave to cross the Pacific Ocean basin in the equatorial region). However, the results also suggest that the addition of off-equatorial wind stress forcing to the HCM leads to variations in equatorial Pacific background SSTA of up to almost one standard deviation. This off-equatorially forced portion of the equatorial SSTA could prove critical for thresholds of El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) because they can constructively interfere with equatorially forced SSTA of the same sign to produce significant equatorial region ENSO anomalies.

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Shayne McGregor, Alexander Sen Gupta, and Matthew H. England

Abstract

A number of global surface wind datasets are available that are commonly used to examine climate variability or trends and as boundary conditions for ocean circulation models. However, discrepancies exist among these products. This study uses observed Archiving, Validation, and Interpretation of Satellite Oceanographic (AVISO) sea surface height anomalies (SSHAs) as a means to help constrain the fidelity of these products in the tropical region. Each wind stress product is used to force a linear shallow water model (SWM) and the resulting hindcast thermocline depth anomalies are converted to SSHAs. The resulting SSHAs are then assessed to see how well they reproduce the dominant EOF modes of observed variability and the regional (global mean removed) sea level trend (1993–2007) in each of the three ocean basins. While the results suggest that all wind datasets reproduce the observed interannual variability with reasonable fidelity, the two SWM hindcasts that produce the observed linear trend with the highest fidelity are those incorporating interim ECMWF Re-Analysis (ERA-Interim) and Wave- and Anemometer-Based Sea Surface Wind (WASWind) forcing. The role of surface wind forcing (i.e., upper ocean heat content redistribution) versus global mean sea level change (i.e., including the additional contributions of glacier and ice sheet melt along with ocean thermal expansion) on the recent dramatic increase in western equatorial Pacific island sea level is then reassessed. The results suggest that the recent sea level increase cannot be explained solely by wind stress forcing, regardless of the dataset used; rather, the global mean sea level signal is required to fully explain this observed recent abrupt sea level rise and to better explain the sea level variability of the last 50–60 years.

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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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Shayne McGregor, Neil J. Holbrook, and Scott B. Power

Abstract

The Australian Bureau of Meteorology Research Centre CGCM and a linear first baroclinic-mode ocean shallow-water model (SWM) are used to investigate ocean dynamic forcing mechanisms of the equatorial Pacific Ocean interdecadal sea surface temperature (SST) variability. An EOF analysis of the 13-yr low-pass Butterworth-filtered SST anomalies from a century-time-scale CGCM simulation reveals an SST anomaly spatial pattern and time variability consistent with the interdecadal Pacific oscillation. Results from an SWM simulation forced with wind stresses from the CGCM simulation are shown to compare well with the CGCM, and as such the SWM is then used to investigate the roles of “uncoupled” equatorial wind stress forcing, off-equatorial wind stress forcing (OffEqWF), and Rossby wave reflection at the western Pacific Ocean boundary, on the decadal equatorial thermocline depth anomalies.

Equatorial Pacific wind stresses are shown to explain a large proportion of the overall variance in the equatorial thermocline depth anomalies. However, OffEqWF beyond 12.5° latitude produces an interdecadal signature in the Niño-4 (Niño-3) region that explains approximately 10% (1.5%) of the filtered control simulation variance. Rossby wave reflection at the western Pacific boundary is shown to underpin the OffEqWF contribution to these equatorial anomalies. The implications of this result for the predictability of the decadal variations of thermocline depth are investigated with results showing that OffEqWF generates an equatorial response in the Niño-3 region up to 3 yr after the wind stress forcing is switched off. Further, a statistically significant correlation is found between thermocline depth anomalies in the off-equatorial zone and the Niño-3 region, with the Niño-3 region lagging by approximately 2 yr. The authors conclude that there is potential predictability of the OffEqWF equatorial thermocline depth anomalies with lead times of up to 3 yr when taking into account the amplitudes and locations of off-equatorial region Rossby waves.

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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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Shayne McGregor, Alex Sen Gupta, Neil J. Holbrook, and Scott B. Power

Abstract

Evidence suggests that the magnitude and frequency of the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) changes on interdecadal time scales. This is manifest in a distinct shift in ENSO behavior during the late 1970s. This study investigates mechanisms that may force this interdecadal variability and, in particular, on modulations driven by extratropical Rossby waves. Results from oceanic shallow-water models show that the Rossby wave theory can explain small near-zonal changes in equatorial thermocline depth that can alter the amplitude of simulated ENSO events. However, questions remain over whether the same mechanism operates in more complex coupled general circulation models (CGCMs) and what the magnitude of the resulting change would be. Experiments carried out in a state-of-the-art z-coordinate primitive equation model confirm that the Rossby wave mechanism does indeed operate. The effects of these interactions are further investigated using a partial coupling (PC) technique. This allows for the isolation of the role of wind stress–forced oceanic exchanges between the extratropics and the tropics and the subsequent modulation of ENSO variability. It is found that changes in the background state of the equatorial Pacific thermocline depth, induced by a fixed off-equatorial wind stress anomaly, can significantly affect the probability of ENSO events occurring. This confirms the results obtained from simpler models and further validates theories that rely on oceanic wave dynamics to generate Pacific Ocean interdecadal variability. This indicates that an improved predictive capability for seasonal-to-interannual ENSO variability could be achieved through a better understanding of extratropical-to-tropical Pacific Ocean transfers and western boundary processes. Furthermore, such an understanding would provide a physical basis to enhance multiyear probabilistic predictions of ENSO indices.

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