A Model EI Niño-Southern Oscillation

Zebiak, Stephen E.; Cane, Mark A.

A coupled atmosphere-ocean model is developed and used to study the ENSO (EI Nino-Southern Oscillation) phenomenon. With no anomalous external forcing, the coupled model reproduces certain key features of the observed phenomenon, including the recurrence of warm events at irregular intervals with a preference for three to four years. It is shown that the mean sea surface temperature, wind and ocean current fields determine the characteristic spatial structure of ENSO anomalies. The tendency for phase-locking of anomalies is explained in terms of a variation in coupling strength associated with the annual cycle in the mean fields. Sensitivity studies reveal that both the amplitude and the time of scale of the oscillation are sensitive to several parameters that affect the strength of the atmosphere–ocean coupling. Stronger coupling implies larger oscillations with a longer time scale. A critical element of the model oscilliation is the variability in the equatorial heat content of the upper ocean. Equatorial heat content increases prior to warm events and decreases sharply during the events. A theory for this variability and the associated transitions between the non-El Niño and El Niño states is presented. Implications of the model results for the prediction of El Niño events are discussed.


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Academic Units
Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory
Ocean and Climate Physics
American Meteorological Society
Published Here
March 28, 2012