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The Energetics of El Niño and La Niña

Goddard, Lisa M.; Philander, S. George

Data from a realistic model of the ocean, forced with observed atmospheric conditions for the period 1953–92, are analyzed to determine the energetics of interannual variability in the tropical Pacific. The work done by the winds on the ocean, rather than generating kinetic energy, does work against pressure gradients and generates buoyancy power, which in turn is responsible for the rate of change of available potential energy (APE). This means interannual fluctuations in work done by the wind have a phase that leads variations in APE. Variations in the sea surface temperature (SST) of the eastern equatorial Pacific and in APE are highly correlated and in phase so that changes in the work done by the wind are precursors of El Niño. The wind does positive work on the ocean during the half cycle that starts with the peak of El Niño and continues into La Niña; it does negative work during the remaining half cycle. The results corroborate the delayed oscillator mechanism that qualitatively describes the deterministic behavior of ENSO. In that paradigm, a thermocline perturbation appearing in the western equatorial Pacific affects the transition from one phase of ENSO to the next when that perturbation arrives in the eastern equatorial Pacific where it influences SST. The analysis of energetics indicates that the transition starts earlier, during La Niña, when the perturbation is still in the far western equatorial Pacific. Although the perturbation at that stage affects the thermal structure mainly in the thermocline, at depth, the associated currents are manifest at the surface and immediately affect work done by the wind. For the simulation presented here, the change in energy resulting from adjustment processes far outweighs that due to stochastic processes, such as intraseasonal wind bursts, at least during periods of successive El Niño and La Niña events.


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Academic Units
International Research Institute for Climate and Society
American Meteorological Society
Published Here
March 31, 2016