ENSO Variability and External Impacts

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  • 1 Atmospheric, Oceanic and Planetary Physics, Department of Physics, University of Oxford, England
  • | 2 Hadley Center, Meteorological Office, Bracknell, England
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Abstract

Many features of the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon have been successfully simulated by coupled models during the last decade; however, some fundamental differences in model behavior remain. They can be classified into two categories according to whether the oscillation is self-sustained within the Pacific sector or whether some external impacts are needed to maintain the oscillation. In the first category, the delayed oscillator scenario describes ENSO as an oscillation generated and maintained by the coupled instability and oceanic waves, without the need for any external impacts. In the second category, the system has two steady states of equilibrium and an external forcing is needed to move the system from one state to another. Recent observational analyses suggest possible interactions or connections between external influences and ENSO variability.

The effects of external impacts on ENSO variability are investigated here by using a simple coupled ocean–atmosphere model. The impacts considered are wind-stress anomalies associated with the seasonal monsoonal cycle, and the tropospheric quasi-biennial oscillation in the Indian and western Pacific region. It was found that 1) the external impact plays an important role in triggering ENSO variability when the coupled system in the Pacific could not support the oscillation by itself, 2) the impact regulates the original self-sustained oscillation to a seasonally phase-locked time evolution; and 3) the periods of the resulting oscillations could be three times that of the external forcing, a result of the interaction between the external forcing and the coupled system in the Pacific.

A modified version of the delayed oscillator equation was used to examine further details of the interaction. It was found that the match of half of the period of the external forcing with the delay time of the reflected oceanic waves from the western boundary arriving at the air–sea interaction region to turn off an event is a key factor in determining how they interact. If the time-matching condition is satisfied, the oscillation period will be three times that of the forcing. It is also shown that wind stress associated with the quasi-biennial oscillation could influence significantly the original self-sustained oscillation in the Pacific, making the amplitude and interval between two successive warm or cold phases variable, as observed in ENSO events.

Abstract

Many features of the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon have been successfully simulated by coupled models during the last decade; however, some fundamental differences in model behavior remain. They can be classified into two categories according to whether the oscillation is self-sustained within the Pacific sector or whether some external impacts are needed to maintain the oscillation. In the first category, the delayed oscillator scenario describes ENSO as an oscillation generated and maintained by the coupled instability and oceanic waves, without the need for any external impacts. In the second category, the system has two steady states of equilibrium and an external forcing is needed to move the system from one state to another. Recent observational analyses suggest possible interactions or connections between external influences and ENSO variability.

The effects of external impacts on ENSO variability are investigated here by using a simple coupled ocean–atmosphere model. The impacts considered are wind-stress anomalies associated with the seasonal monsoonal cycle, and the tropospheric quasi-biennial oscillation in the Indian and western Pacific region. It was found that 1) the external impact plays an important role in triggering ENSO variability when the coupled system in the Pacific could not support the oscillation by itself, 2) the impact regulates the original self-sustained oscillation to a seasonally phase-locked time evolution; and 3) the periods of the resulting oscillations could be three times that of the external forcing, a result of the interaction between the external forcing and the coupled system in the Pacific.

A modified version of the delayed oscillator equation was used to examine further details of the interaction. It was found that the match of half of the period of the external forcing with the delay time of the reflected oceanic waves from the western boundary arriving at the air–sea interaction region to turn off an event is a key factor in determining how they interact. If the time-matching condition is satisfied, the oscillation period will be three times that of the forcing. It is also shown that wind stress associated with the quasi-biennial oscillation could influence significantly the original self-sustained oscillation in the Pacific, making the amplitude and interval between two successive warm or cold phases variable, as observed in ENSO events.

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