Simple dynamical models capturing the key features of the Central Pacific El Niño

Nan Chen, Andrew J. Majda

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The Central Pacific El Niño (CP El Niño) has been frequently observed in recent decades. The phenomenon is characterized by an anomalous warm sea surface temperature (SST) confined to the central Pacific and has different teleconnections from the traditional El Niño. Here, simple models are developed and shown to capture the key mechanisms of the CP El Niño. The starting model involves coupled atmosphere-ocean processes that are deterministic, linear, and stable. Then, systematic strategies are developed for incorporating several major mechanisms of the CP El Niño into the coupled system. First, simple nonlinear zonal advection with no ad hoc parameterization of the background SST gradient is introduced that creates coupled nonlinear advective modes of the SST. Secondly, due to the recent multidecadal strengthening of the easterly trade wind, a stochastic parameterization of the wind bursts including a mean easterly trade wind anomaly is coupled to the simple atmosphere-ocean processes. Effective stochastic noise in the wind burst model facilitates the intermittent occurrence of the CP El Niño with realistic amplitude and duration. In addition to the anomalous warm SST in the central Pacific, other major features of the CP El Niño such as the rising branch of the anomalous Walker circulation being shifted to the central Pacific and the eastern Pacific cooling with a shallow thermocline are all captured by this simple coupled model. Importantly, the coupled model succeeds in simulating a series of CP El Niño that lasts for 5 y, which resembles the two CP El Niño episodes during 1990-1995 and 2002-2006.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)11732-11737
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number42
StatePublished - Oct 18 2016


  • Effective stochastic noise
  • Nonlinear zonal advection
  • Strengthening of the easterly trade wind
  • Walker circulation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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