Contribution of tropical instability waves to ENSO irregularity

Ryan M. Holmes, Shayne McGregor, Agus Santoso, Matthew H. England

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Tropical instability waves (TIWs) are a major source of internally-generated oceanic variability in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. These non-linear phenomena play an important role in the sea surface temperature (SST) budget in a region critical for low-frequency modes of variability such as the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO). However, the direct contribution of TIW-driven stochastic variability to ENSO has received little attention. Here, we investigate the influence of TIWs on ENSO using a 1 / 4 ocean model coupled to a simple atmosphere. The use of a simple atmosphere removes complex intrinsic atmospheric variability while allowing the dominant mode of air−sea coupling to be represented as a statistical relationship between SST and wind stress anomalies. Using this hybrid coupled model, we perform a suite of coupled ensemble forecast experiments initiated with wind bursts in the western Pacific, where individual ensemble members differ only due to internal oceanic variability. We find that TIWs can induce a spread in the forecast amplitude of the Niño 3 SST anomaly 6-months after a given sequence of WWBs of approximately ±45% the size of the ensemble mean anomaly. Further, when various estimates of stochastic atmospheric forcing are added, oceanic internal variability is found to contribute between about 20 % and 70 % of the ensemble forecast spread, with the remainder attributable to the atmospheric variability. While the oceanic contribution to ENSO stochastic forcing requires further quantification beyond the idealized approach used here, our results nevertheless suggest that TIWs may impact ENSO irregularity and predictability. This has implications for ENSO representation in low-resolution coupled models.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1837-1855
Number of pages19
JournalClimate Dynamics
Issue number3-4
Publication statusPublished - 15 Feb 2019


  • El Niño–Southern Oscillation
  • Hybrid coupled model
  • Ocean general circulation model
  • Predictability
  • Stochastic forcing
  • Tropical instability waves

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