Climate Dynamics

, Volume 26, Issue 2, pp 247-272

First online:

Multi-year predictability in a coupled general circulation model

  • Scott PowerAffiliated withBureau of Meteorology Research Centre Email author 
  • , Rob ColmanAffiliated withBureau of Meteorology Research Centre

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Multi-year to decadal variability in a 100-year integration of a BMRC coupled atmosphere-ocean general circulation model (CGCM) is examined. The fractional contribution made by the decadal component generally increases with depth and latitude away from surface waters in the equatorial Indo-Pacific Ocean. The relative importance of decadal variability is enhanced in off-equatorial “wings” in the subtropical eastern Pacific. The model and observations exhibit “ENSO-like” decadal patterns. Analytic results are derived, which show that the patterns can, in theory, occur in the absence of any predictability beyond ENSO time-scales. In practice, however, modification to this stochastic view is needed to account for robust differences between ENSO-like decadal patterns and their interannual counterparts. An analysis of variability in the CGCM, a wind-forced shallow water model, and a simple mixed layer model together with existing and new theoretical results are used to improve upon this stochastic paradigm and to provide a new theory for the origin of decadal ENSO-like patterns like the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation and Pacific Decadal Oscillation. In this theory, ENSO-driven wind-stress variability forces internal equatorially-trapped Kelvin waves that propagate towards the eastern boundary. Kelvin waves can excite reflected internal westward propagating equatorially-trapped Rossby waves (RWs) and coastally-trapped waves (CTWs). CTWs have no impact on the off-equatorial sub-surface ocean outside the coastal wave guide, whereas the RWs do. If the frequency of the incident wave is too high, then only CTWs are excited. At lower frequencies, both CTWs and RWs can be excited. The lower the frequency, the greater the fraction of energy transmitted to RWs. This lowers the characteristic frequency (reddens the spectrum) of variability off the equator relative to its equatorial counterpart. At low frequencies, dissipation acts as an additional low pass filter that becomes more effective, as latitude increases. At the same time, ENSO-driven off-equatorial surface heating anomalies drive mixed layer temperature responses in both hemispheres. Both the eastern boundary interactions and the accumulation of surface heat fluxes by the surface mixed layer act to low pass filter the ENSO-forcing. The resulting off-equatorial variability is therefore more coherent with low pass filtered (decadal) ENSO indices [e.g. NINO3 sea-surface temperature (SST)] than with unfiltered ENSO indices. Consequently large correlations between variability and NINO3 extend further poleward on decadal time-scales than they do on interannual time-scales. This explains why decadal ENSO-like patterns have a broader meridional structure than their interannual counterparts. This difference in appearance can occur even if ENSO indices do not have any predictability beyond interannual time-scales. The wings around 15–20°S, and sub-surface variability at many other locations are predictable on interannual and multi-year time-scales. This includes westward propagating internal RWs within about 25° of the equator. The slowest of these take up to 4 years to reach the western boundary. This sub-surface predictability has significant oceanographic interest. However, it is linked to only low levels of SST variability. Consequently, extrapolation of delayed action oscillator theory to decadal time-scales might not be justified.