Nonlinearity and asymmetry of ENSO

Soon Il An, Fei Fei Jin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

389 Citations (Scopus)


El Niño events (warm) are often stronger than La Niña events (cold). This asymmetry is an intrinsic nonlinear characteristic of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon. In order to measure the nonlinearity of ENSO, the maximum potential intensity (MPI) index and the nonlinear dynamic heating (NDH) of ENSO are proposed as qualitative and quantitative measures. The 1997/98 El Niño that was recorded as the strongest event in the past century and another strong El Nin̄o event in 1982/83 nearly reached the MPI. During these superwarming events, the normal climatological conditions of the ocean and atmosphere were collapsed completely. The huge bursts of ENSO activity manifested in these events are attributable to the nonlinear dynamic processes. Through a heat budget analysis of the ocean mixed layer it is found that throughout much of the ENSO episodes of 1982/83 and 1997/98, the DH strengthened these warm events and weakened subsequent La Nin̄a events. This led to the warm-cold asymmetry. It is also found that the eastward-propagating feature in these two El Niño events provided a favorable phase relationship between temperature and current that resulted in the strong nonlinear dynamical warming. For the westward-propagating El Nin̄o events prior to the late 1970s (e.g., 1957/58 and 1972/73 ENSOs) the phase relationships between zonal temperature gradient and current and between the surface and subsurface temperature anomalies are unfavorable for nonlinear dynamic heating, and thereby the ENSO events are not strong.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2399-2412
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Climate
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - 2004 Jun 15

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Atmospheric Science


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