Retrospective El Niño forecasts using an improved intermediate coupled model

Rong Hua Zhang, Stephen E. Zebiak, Richard Kleeman, Noel Keenlyside

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The new intermediate coupled model (ICM) is presented and employed to make retrospective predictions of tropical Pacific sea surface temperature (SST) anomalies. The ocean dynamics is an extension of the McCreary baroclinic modal model to include varying stratification and certain nonlinear effects. A standard configuration is chosen with 10 baroclinic modes plus two surface layers, which are governed by Ekman dynamics and simulate the combined effects of the higher baroclinic modes from 11 to 30. A nonlinear correction associated with vertical advection of zonal momentum is incorporated and applied (diagnostically) only within the two surface layers, forced by the linear part through nonlinear advection terms. As a result of these improvements, the model realistically simulates the mean equatorial circulation and its variability. The ocean thermodynamics include an SST anomaly model with an empirical parameterization for the temperature of subsurface water entrained into the mixed layer (Te), which is optimally calculated in terms of sea surface height (SSH) anomalies using an empirical orthogonal function (EOF) analysis technique from historical data. The ocean model is then coupled to a statistical atmospheric model that estimates wind stress (τ) anomalies based on a singular value decomposition (SVD) analysis between SST anomalies observed and τ anomalies simulated from ECHAM4.5 (24-member ensemble mean). The coupled system exhibits realistic interannual variability associated with El Niño, including a predominant standing pattern of SST anomalies along the equator and coherent phase relationships among different atmosphere-ocean anomaly fields with a dominant 3-yr oscillation period. Twelve-month hindcasts/forecasts are made during the period 1963-2002, starting each month. Only observed SST anomalies are used to initialize the coupled predictions. As compared to other prediction systems, this coupled model has relatively small systematic errors in the predicted SST anomalies, and its SST prediction skill is apparently competitive with that of most advanced coupled systems incorporating sophisticated ocean data assimilation. One striking feature is that the model skill surpasses that of persistence at all lead times over the central equatorial Pacific. Prediction skill is strongly dependent on the season, with the correlations attaining a minimum in spring and a maximum in fall. Cross-validation experiments are performed to examine the sensitivity of the prediction skill to the data periods selected for training the empirical Te model. It is demonstrated that the artificial skill introduced by using a dependently constructed Te model is not significant. Independent forecasts are made for the period 1997-2002 when no dependent data are included in constructing the two empirical models (Te, and τ). The coupled model has reasonable success in predicting transition to warm phase and to cold phase in the spring of 1997 and 1998, respectively. Potential problems and further improvements are discussed with the new intermediate prediction system.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2777-2802
Number of pages26
JournalMonthly Weather Review
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2005

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Atmospheric Science


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