Detecting decadal changes in ENSO using neural networks

Julie A. Leloup, Zouhair Lachkar, Jean Philippe Boulanger, Sylvie Thiria

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The present manuscript analyzes monthly equatorial Pacific indices by using a specific neural algorithm, the so-called "Self-Organizing Maps" (SOMs). The main result is a change found in the nature of the transitions between cold to warm and warm to cold extreme events from 1950 to present, around the late 1970s. SOM is an unsupervised clustering technique which allows one to reduce high-dimensional data space (in this case, three indices over 636 months) in terms of a smaller set of three-dimensional reference vectors (100) characterizing pertinent situations. These reference vectors, which are displayed on a two-dimension map, are closely related by a topological relationship leading us to discriminate La Niña conditions from the opposite El Niño conditions. In a second step, a Hierarchical Agglomerative Clustering (HAC) method is used to further group the reference vectors into a small number of clusters (12) whose spatial and temporal characteristics can be analyzed and interpreted in terms of physical parameters. Schematically, these 12 clusters can be divided into two "warm" clusters, six "neutral" or "transition" clusters and four "cold" clusters. In each particular group (warm, neutral, cold), the clusters mainly differ from each other by the amplitude of the anomalies, their spatial patterns and their temporal variability. Some clusters are found to be strongly linked to the boreal spring period, while others have barely any records during that season. Other clusters are associated with records mainly observed either prior to or after 1980. This suggests that the method is able to identify changes in the variability of the tropical Pacific basin observed on decadal time scales (1976 climate shift in our case). Each monthly record can be summarized by the cluster to which it belongs. The temporal evolution of this value during extreme ENSO events shows similar patterns (persistence in specific clusters and transition between groups of clusters) associated with comparable El Niño or La Niña events. The methodology described in the present study (SOM plus HAC) is suggested to be useful both for seasonal ENSO predictability and for the detection of decadal changes in ENSO behavior.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)147-162
Number of pages16
JournalClimate Dynamics
Issue number2-3
StatePublished - Feb 2007

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Atmospheric Science


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