El Niño and La Niña

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  • 1 Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08542
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Abstract

El Niño and La Niña are the two complementary phase of the Southern Oscillation. During E1 Niña, the area of high sea surface temperatures increases, while the atmospheric convection zones of the tropical Pacific expand and merge so that there is a tendency toward spatially homogeneous conditions. La Niña is associated with low sea surface temperatures near the equator, with atmospheric convergence zones that are isolated from each other, and with spatial wales smaller than those of El Niña. It is proposed that both phases of the Southern Oscillation can be attributed to unstable interactions between the tropical ocean and atmosphere. During El Niña, the increase release of latent heat to the atmosphere drives the instability. During La Niña, when the heating of the atmosphere decreases, the compression of the convection into smaller and smaller areas permits an instability that intensifies the trade winds and the oceanic currents. The unstable air-sea interactions are modulated by the seasonal movements of the atmospheric convergence zones, and this determines some of the characteristics of the perturbations that can be amplified. The zonal integral of winds along the equator, rather than winds over a relatively small part of the Pacific such as the region west of the date line, is identified as a useful indicator of subsequent developments in the Pacific.

Abstract

El Niño and La Niña are the two complementary phase of the Southern Oscillation. During E1 Niña, the area of high sea surface temperatures increases, while the atmospheric convection zones of the tropical Pacific expand and merge so that there is a tendency toward spatially homogeneous conditions. La Niña is associated with low sea surface temperatures near the equator, with atmospheric convergence zones that are isolated from each other, and with spatial wales smaller than those of El Niña. It is proposed that both phases of the Southern Oscillation can be attributed to unstable interactions between the tropical ocean and atmosphere. During El Niña, the increase release of latent heat to the atmosphere drives the instability. During La Niña, when the heating of the atmosphere decreases, the compression of the convection into smaller and smaller areas permits an instability that intensifies the trade winds and the oceanic currents. The unstable air-sea interactions are modulated by the seasonal movements of the atmospheric convergence zones, and this determines some of the characteristics of the perturbations that can be amplified. The zonal integral of winds along the equator, rather than winds over a relatively small part of the Pacific such as the region west of the date line, is identified as a useful indicator of subsequent developments in the Pacific.

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