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Open Access Publications from the University of California

A 10-15 -Yr Modulation Cycle of ENSO Intensity


This study examines the slow modulation of El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) intensity and its underlying mechanism. A 10–15-yr ENSO intensity modulation cycle is identified from historical and paleoclimate data by calculating the envelope function of boreal winter Niño-3.4 and Niño-3 sea surface temperature (SST) indices. Composite analyses reveal interesting spatial asymmetries between El Niño and La Niña events within the modulation cycle. In the enhanced intensity periods of the cycle, El Niño is located in the eastern tropical Pacific and La Niña in the central tropical Pacific. The asymmetry is reversed in the weakened intensity periods: El Niño centers in the central Pacific and La Niña in the eastern Pacific. El Niño and La Niña centered in the eastern Pacific are accompanied with basin-scale surface wind and thermocline anomalies, whereas those centered in the central Pacific are accompanied with local wind and thermocline anomalies. The El Niño–La Niña asymmetries provide a possible mechanism for ENSO to exert a nonzero residual effect that could lead to slow changes in the Pacific mean state. The mean state changes are characterized by an SST dipole pattern between the eastern and central tropical Pacific, which appears as one leading EOF mode of tropical Pacific decadal variability. The Pacific Walker circulation migrates zonally in association with this decadal mode and also changes the mean surface wind and thermocline patterns along the equator. Although the causality has not been established, it is speculated that the mean state changes in turn favor the alternative spatial patterns of El Niño and La Niña that manifest as the reversed ENSO asymmetries. Using these findings, an ENSO–Pacific climate interaction mechanism is hypothesized to explain the decadal ENSO intensity modulation cycle.

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