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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Diversity of ENSO Events Unified by Convective Threshold Sea Surface Temperature: A Nonlinear ENSO Index

  • Author(s): Williams, IN
  • Patricola, CM
  • et al.

We show that the well-known failure of any single index to capture the diversity and extremes of El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) results from the inability of existing indices to uniquely characterize the average longitude of deep convection in the Walker Circulation. We present a simple sea surface temperature (SST)-based index of this longitude that compactly characterizes the different spatial patterns, or flavors of observed and projected ENSO events. It recovers the familiar global responses of temperature, precipitation, and tropical cyclones to ENSO and identifies historical extreme El Niño events. Despite its simplicity, the new longitude index describes the nonlinear relationship between the first two principal components of SST, and unlike previous indices, accounts for background SST changes associated with the seasonal cycle and climate change. The index reveals that extreme El Niño, El Niño Modoki, and La Niña events are projected to become more frequent in the future at the expense of neutral ENSO conditions.

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