Meteorology and Atmospheric Physics

, Volume 56, Issue 1–2, pp 33–55

The annual cycle and the predictability of the tropical coupled ocean-atmosphere system

  • P. J. Webster


Using large-scale circulation statistics from the Pacific Ocean basin, predictability of the coupled ocean-atmosphere system on interannual time scales is found both to be limited in extent and to possess a strong annual cycle. Irrespective of when lagged correlations are commenced, correlations decrease rapidly through the boreal spring, indicating an inherent predictability limitation for large scale coupled oceanicatmospheric processes such as El Niño. Long term prediction experiments using numerical coupled-models show that the models are excellent facsimiles of the real system. They, too, encounter the predictability barrier and exhibit a substantial decrease in observation-prediction correlation across the boreal spring. Thus, a predictive system based solely on the interactive physics of the Pacific Basin appears limited to a maximum of less than one year and a minimum of only one or two months.

Two hypotheses are made to explain the existence of the predictability barrier. First, it is argued that the tropical coupled system is at its frailest state during the boreal spring and that the signal-to-noise ratio is weakest. In such a system, maximum random error growth may occur as the atmosphere and the ocean become temporally detached and wander onto different climate trajectories. A series of 144 preliminary Monte Carlo experiments were conducted with a coupled ocean-atmosphere model to test the hypothesis. Irrespective of when the experiments were commenced, error growth was maximized at the same time of the year. The second hypothesis suggests that the near-equatorial circulation is perturbed at the time of its weakest state by external influences such as the monsoon and that the climate wanderings are “nudged” deterministically. There is observational and theoretical evidence to support the hypothesis. Observations suggest that anomalous monsoons impart basin-wide coherent alterations of the wind stress field in the Pacific Ocean. Experiments with a coupled ocean-atmosphere model show that the period of an ENSO event is altered substantially by an anomalous monsoon. Given that there appear to be precursors to anomalous monsoons, it is suggested that there may be ways to avoid the predictability barrier and thus extend prediction of the entire system.

Finally, noting that the two hypotheses are not mutually exclusive, they are combined to form a unified theory. As the asymmetric monsoonal and the symmetric near-equatorial heating are in approximate quadrature, it is argued that the monsoons influence the Walker circulation during the boreal spring. However, during the boreal fall and early winter the near-equatorial heating variability dominates the winter monsoon.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 1995

Authors and Affiliations

  • P. J. Webster
    • 1
  1. 1.Program in Atmospheric and Oceanic SciencesUniversity of ColoradoBoulderUSA

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