, Volume 23, Issue 6, pp 601-620
Date: 04 Aug 2004

Triggering of El Niño by westerly wind events in a coupled general circulation model

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Abstract

Two ten-members ensemble experiments using a coupled ocean-atmosphere general circulation model are performed to study the dynamical response to a strong westerly wind event (WWE) when the tropical Pacific has initial conditions favourable to the development of a warm event. In the reference ensemble (CREF), no wind perturbation is introduced, whereas a strong westerly wind event anomaly is introduced in boreal winter over the western Pacific in the perturbed ensemble (CWWE). Our results demonstrate that an intense WWE is capable of establishing the conditions under which a strong El Niño event can occur. First, it generates a strong downwelling Kelvin wave that generates a positive sea surface temperature (SST) anomaly in the central-eastern Pacific amplified through a coupled ocean-atmosphere interaction. This anomaly can be as large as 2.5°C 60 days after the WWE. Secondly, this WWE also initiates an eastward displacement of the warm-pool that promotes the occurrence of subsequent WWEs in the following months. These events reinforce the initial warming through the generation of additional Kelvin waves and generate intense surface jets at the eastern edge of the warm-pool that act to further shift warm waters eastward. The use of a ten-members ensemble however reveals substantial differences in the coupled response to a WWE. Whereas four members of CWWE ensemble develop into intense El Niño warming as described above, four others display a moderate warming and two remains in neutral conditions. This diversity between the members appears to be due to the internal atmospheric variability during and following the inserted WWE. In the four moderate warm cases, the warm-pool is initially shifted eastward following the inserted WWE, but the subsequent weak WWE activity (when compared to the strong warming cases) prevents to further shift the warm-pool eastwards. The seasonal strengthening of trade winds in June–July can therefore act to shift warm waters back into the western Pacific, reducing the central-eastern Pacific warming. This strong sensitivity of the coupled response to WWEs may therefore limit the predictability of El Niño events, as the high frequency wind variability over the warm pool region remains largely unpredictable even at short time lead.