A review of interdecadal changes in the nonlinearity of the El Ninño-Southern Oscillation

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Many features of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) display significant interdecadal changes. These include general characteristics such as amplitude, period, and developing features, and also nonlinearities, especially the El Niño-La Niña asymmetry. A review of previous studies on the interdecadal changes in the ENSO nonlinearities is provided. In particular, the methods for measuring ENSO nonlinearities, their possible driving mechanisms, and their interdecadal changes are discussed. Two methods for measuring ENSO nonlinearities are introduced; the maximum potential intensity, which refers to the upper and lower bounds of the cold tongue temperature, and the skewness, which represents the asymmetry of a probability density function. For example, positive skewness (a strong El Niño vs. a weak La Niña) of the tropical Pacific sea surface temperature (SST) anomalies is dominant over the eastern tropical Pacific, with an increase seen during recent decades (e.g., 1980-2000). This positive skewness can be understood as a result of several nonlinear processes. These include the warming effect on both El Niño and La Nĩna by nonlinear dynamic heating (NDH), which intensifies El Niño and suppresses La Niña; the asymmetric negative feedback due to tropical oceanic instability waves, which has a relatively stronger influence on the La Niña event; the nonlinear physics of the ocean mixed layer; the Madden-Julian-Oscillation/Westerly-Wind-Burst and ENSO interaction; the biological-physical feedback process; and the nonlinear responses of the tropical atmospheric convection to El Niño and La Niña conditions. The skewness of the tropical eastern Pacific SST anomalies and the intensities of the above-mentioned mechanisms have both experienced clear decadal changes in a dynamically associated manner. In particular, there is a dynamic linkage between the decadal changes in the El Niño-La Niña asymmetry and those in NDH. This linkage is based on the recent decadal changes in mean climate states, which provided a favorable condition for thermocline feedback rather than for zonal advection feedback, and thus promoted the eastward propagation of the ENSO-related atmospheric and oceanic fields. The eastward propagating ENSO mode easily produces a positive NDH, resulting in asymmetric ENSO events in which El Niño conditions are stronger than La Niña conditions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)29-40
Number of pages12
JournalTheoretical and Applied Climatology
Issue number1-2
Publication statusPublished - 2009

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was supported by “National Comprehensive Measures against Climate Change” Program by Ministry of Environment, Korea (Grant No. 1700-1737-322-210-13), and by the Korea Research Foundation Grant funded by the Korean Government (MOEHRD, Basic Research Promotion Fund) (KRF-2007-313-C00784).

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Atmospheric Science


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