, Volume 38, Issue 5-6, pp 1031-1046
Date: 30 Mar 2011

Mechanisms controlling warm water volume interannual variations in the equatorial Pacific: diabatic versus adiabatic processes

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Variations of the volume of warm water above the thermocline in the equatorial Pacific are a good predictor of ENSO (El Niño/Southern Oscillation) and are thought to be critical for its preconditioning and development. In this study, the Warm Water Volume (WWV) interannual variability is analysed using forced general circulation model experiments and an original method for diagnosing processes responsible for WWV variations. The meridional recharge/discharge to higher latitudes drives 60% of the ENSO-related equatorial WWV variations, while diabatic processes in the eastern equatorial Pacific account for the remaining 40%. Interior meridional transport is partially compensated by western boundary transports, especially in the southern hemisphere. Diabatic equatorial WWV formation (depletions) during La Niña (El Niño) are explained by enhanced (reduced) diathermal transport through enhanced (reduced) vertical mixing and penetrating solar forcing at the 20°C isotherm depth. The respective contribution of diabatic and adiabatic processes during build-ups/depletions strongly varies from event-to-event. The WWV build-up during neutral ENSO phases (e.g. 1980–1982) is almost entirely controlled by meridional recharge, providing a text-book example for the recharge/discharge oscillator’s theory. On the other hand, diabatic processes are particularly active during the strongest La Niña events (1984, 1988, 1999), contributing to more than 70% of the WWV build-up, with heating by penetrative solar fluxes explaining as much as 30% of the total build-up due to a very shallow thermocline in the eastern Pacific. This study does not invalidate the recharge/discharge oscillator theory but rather emphasizes the importance of equatorial diabatic processes and western boundary transports in controlling WWV changes.