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The Northern Hemisphere Extratropical Atmospheric Circulation Response to ENSO: How Well Do We Know It and How Do We Evaluate Models Accordingly?

  • Author(s): Deser, Clara
  • Simpson, Isla R
  • McKinnon, Karen A
  • Phillips, Adam S
  • et al.
Abstract

Application of random sampling techniques to composite differences between 18 El Niño and 14 La Niña events observed since 1920 reveals considerable uncertainty in both the pattern and amplitude of the Northern Hemisphere extratropical winter sea level pressure (SLP) response to ENSO. While the SLP responses over the North Pacific and North America are robust to sampling variability, their magnitudes can vary by a factor of 2; other regions, such as the Arctic, North Atlantic, and Europe are less robust in their SLP patterns, amplitudes, and statistical significance. The uncertainties on the observed ENSO composite are shown to arise mainly from atmospheric internal variability as opposed to ENSO diversity. These observational findings pose considerable challenges for the evaluation of ENSO teleconnections in models. An approach is proposed that incorporates both pattern and amplitude uncertainty in the observational target, allowing for discrimination between true model biases in the forced ENSO response and apparent model biases that arise from limited sampling of non-ENSO-related internal variability. Large initial-condition coupled model ensembles with realistic tropical Pacific sea surface temperature anomaly evolution during 1920–2013 show similar levels of uncertainty in their ENSO teleconnections as found in observations. Because the set of ENSO events in each of the model composites is the same (and identical to that in observations), these uncertainties are entirely attributable to sampling fluctuations arising from internal variability, which is shown to originate from atmospheric processes. The initial-condition model ensembles thus inform the interpretation of the single observed ENSO composite and vice versa.

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