Climate Dynamics

, Volume 40, Issue 5, pp 1223-1236

First online:

Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.

Linear trends in sea surface temperature of the tropical Pacific Ocean and implications for the El Niño-Southern Oscillation

  • Michelle L. L’HeureuxAffiliated withNOAA Climate Prediction Center Email author 
  • , Dan C. CollinsAffiliated withNOAA Climate Prediction Center
  • , Zeng-Zhen HuAffiliated withNOAA Climate Prediction Center


A principal component decomposition of monthly sea surface temperature (SST) variability in the tropical Pacific Ocean demonstrates that nearly all of the linear trends during 1950–2010 are found in two leading patterns. The first SST pattern is strongly related to the canonical El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) pattern. The second pattern shares characteristics with the first pattern and its existence solely depends on the presence of linear trends across the tropical Pacific Ocean. The decomposition also uncovers a third pattern, often referred to as ENSO Modoki, but the linear trend is small and dataset dependent over the full 61-year record and is insignificant within each season. ENSO Modoki is also reflected in the equatorial zonal SST gradient between the Niño-4 region, located in the west-central Pacific, and the Niño-3 region in the eastern Pacific. It is only in this zonal SST gradient that a marginally significant trend arises early in the Northern Hemisphere spring (March–May) during El Niño and La Niña and also in the late summer (July–September) during El Niño. Yet these SST trends in the zonal gradient do not unequivocally represent an ENSO Modoki-like dipole because they are exclusively associated with significant positive SST trends in either the eastern or western Pacific, with no corresponding significant negative trends. Insignificant trends in the zonal SST gradient are evident during the boreal wintertime months when ENSO events typically mature. Given the presence of positive SST trends across much of the equatorial Pacific Ocean, using fixed SST anomaly thresholds to define ENSO events likely needs to be reconsidered.