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Predictability of El Niño over the past 148 years


Forecasts of El Niño climate events are routinely provided and distributed, but the limits of El Niño predictability are still the subject of debate. Some recent studies suggest that the predictability is largely limited by the effects of high-frequency atmospheric ‘noise’1,2,3,4,5,6,7, whereas others emphasize limitations arising from the growth of initial errors in model simulations8,9,10. Here we present retrospective forecasts of the interannual climate fluctuations in the tropical Pacific Ocean for the period 1857 to 2003, using a coupled ocean–atmosphere model. The model successfully predicts all prominent El Niño events within this period at lead times of up to two years. Our analysis suggests that the evolution of El Niño is controlled to a larger degree by self-sustaining internal dynamics than by stochastic forcing. Model-based prediction of El Niño therefore depends more on the initial conditions than on unpredictable atmospheric noise. We conclude that throughout the past century, El Niño has been more predictable than previously envisaged.

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Figure 1: Retrospective predictions of El Niño and La Niña in the past 148 yr.
Figure 2: Anomaly correlations and r.m.s. errors between the observed and the predicted values of the NINO3.4 index.
Figure 3: Six of the largest El Niños since 1856.
Figure 4: Correlations between observed and predicted NINO3.4 SST anomalies for the 1856–2003 period.


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This Letter was written during the sabbatical leave of D.C. at the Laboratory of Ocean Dynamic Processes and Satellite Oceanography, Second Institute of Oceanography, Hangzhou, China. This work was supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

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Correspondence to Dake Chen.

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Chen, D., Cane, M., Kaplan, A. et al. Predictability of El Niño over the past 148 years. Nature 428, 733–736 (2004).

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