Irregularity and decadal variation in ENSO: a simplified model based on Principal Oscillation Patterns

Maria Gehne, Richard Kleeman, Kevin E. Trenberth

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A new method of estimating the decay time, mean period and forcing statistics of El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) has been found. It uses a two-dimensional stochastically forced damped linear oscillator model with the model parameters estimated from a Principal Oscillation Pattern (POP) analysis and associated observed power spectra. It makes use of extended observational time series of 150 years of sea surface temperature (SST) and sea level pressure (SLP) as well as climate model output. This approach is motivated by clear physical relationships that SST and SLP POP patterns have to the ENSO cycle, as well as to each other, indicating that they represent actual physical modes of the climate system. Moreover, the leading POP mode accounts for 20–50 % of the variance on interannual time scales. The POP real part is highly correlated with several Niño indices near zero lag while the imaginary part exhibits a 6–9 month lead time and thus is a precursor. The observed POP power spectra show markedly different behavior for the peak and precursor, the former having more power at ENSO frequencies and the latter dominating at low frequencies. The results realistically suggest a period of oscillation of 4–6 years and a decay time of 8 months, which corresponds to the practical ENSO prediction limit. A fundamental finding of this approach is that the difference between the observed peak and precursor spectra at low frequencies can be related to the forcing statistics using the simple model, as well as to the difference between patterns of decadal and interannual variability in the Pacific.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3327-3350
Number of pages24
JournalClimate Dynamics
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2014


  • ENSO predictability
  • ENSO variations
  • POPs
  • Spectral analysis
  • Tropical-extratropical interactions

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Atmospheric Science


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