Stochastic forcing of ENSO by the intraseasonal oscillation

Andrew M. Moore, Richard Kleeman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Using the ideas of generalized linear stability theory, the authors examine the potential role that tropical variability on synoptic-intraseasonal timescales can play in controlling variability on seasonal-interannual time-scales. These ideas are investigated using an intermediate coupled ocean-atmosphere model of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO). The variability on synoptic-intraseasonal timescales is treated as stochastic noise that acts as a forcing function for variability at ENSO timescales. The spatial structure is computed that the stochastic noise forcing must have in order to enhance the variability of the system on seasonal-interannual timescales. These structures are the so-called stochastic optimals of the coupled system, and they bear a good resemblence to variability that is observed in the real atmosphere on synoptic and intraseasonal timescales. When the coupled model is subjected to a stochastic noise forcing composed of the stochastic optimals, variability on seasonal-interannual timescales develops that has spectral characteristics qualitatively similar to those seen in nature. The stochastic noise forcing produces perturbations in the system that can grow rapidly. The response of the system to the stochastic optimals is to induce perturbations that bear a strong resemblence to westerly and easterly wind bursts frequently observed in the western tropical Pacific. In the model, these "wind bursts" can act as efficient precursors for ENSO episodes if conditions are favorable. The response of the system to noise-induced perturbations depends on a number of factors that include 1) the phase of the seasonal cycle, 2) the presence of nonlinearities in the system, 3) the past history of the stochastic noise forcing and its integrated effect, and 4) the stability of the coupled ocean-atmosphere system. Based on their findings, they concur with the view adopted by other investigators that ENSO may be explained, at least partially, as a stochastically forced phenomena, the source of the noise in the Tropics being synoptic-intraseasonal variability, which includes the Madden-Julian oscillation, and westerly/easterly wind bursts. These ideas fit well with the observed onset and development of various ENSO episodes, including the 1997-98 El Niño event.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1199-1220
Number of pages22
JournalJournal of Climate
Issue number5 I
StatePublished - May 1999

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Atmospheric Science


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