Mechanisms causing east Australian spring rainfall differences between three strong El Niño events

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Strong El Niño events have had significant impacts on society through their association with extreme events, such as droughts and floods. However, questions remain as to the robustness of strong El Niño events in forcing regional climate variability. The strong 1982, 1997 and 2015 El Niño events were of similar type and strength, but in eastern Australia they were associated with differing spring rainfall anomaly magnitudes and patterns. To understand these differences, we first determined the most important processes for teleconnecting the El Niño signal to east Australian spring rainfall using historical relationships with winds and sea level pressure. Then, using a 60-member atmospheric model ensemble, we estimated the influence of sea surface temperatures (SSTs) on Australian atmospheric circulation and rainfall during these three El Niño events relative to internal variability. We found that the different east Australian spring rainfall anomalies for each of the three El Niño events are best explained by differences in the strength of the meridional wind component of the regional circulation. All three El Niño events exhibited a positive sea level pressure anomaly to the south of Australia, which was associated with rainfall deficits along the southeast Australian coast. The experiments indicate the regional atmospheric circulation and rainfall differences were forced by SSTs during spring of 1982 and 1997, with their influence on the circulation in 2015 remaining unclear. We also show that SSTs adjacent to Australia further contributed to the modelled rainfall differences mainly by regulating moisture availability.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3641–3659
Number of pages19
JournalClimate Dynamics
Issue number5-6
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2019


  • 1982–1983
  • 1997–1998
  • 2015–2016
  • Climate variability
  • Extreme El Niño
  • Precipitation
  • Super El Niño

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