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Eastern Pacific tropical cyclones intensified by El Niño delivery of subsurface ocean heat


The El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) creates strong variations in sea surface temperature in the eastern equatorial Pacific, leading to major climatic and societal impacts1,2. In particular, ENSO influences the yearly variations of tropical cyclone (TC) activities in both the Pacific and Atlantic basins through atmospheric dynamical factors such as vertical wind shear and stability3,4,5,6. Until recently, however, the direct ocean thermal control of ENSO on TCs has not been taken into consideration because of an apparent mismatch in both timing and location: ENSO peaks in winter and its surface warming occurs mostly along the Equator, a region without TC activity. Here we show that El Niño—the warm phase of an ENSO cycle—effectively discharges heat into the eastern North Pacific basin two to three seasons after its wintertime peak, leading to intensified TCs. This basin is characterized by abundant TC activity and is the second most active TC region in the world5,6,7. As a result of the time involved in ocean transport, El Niño’s equatorial subsurface ‘heat reservoir’, built up in boreal winter, appears in the eastern North Pacific several months later during peak TC season (boreal summer and autumn). By means of this delayed ocean transport mechanism, ENSO provides an additional heat supply favourable for the formation of strong hurricanes. This thermal control on intense TC variability has significant implications for seasonal predictions and long-term projections of TC activity over the eastern North Pacific.

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Figure 1: EOF decomposition of T105 (temperatures averaged between 5 and 105 m) anomalies.
Figure 2: Trajectories of intense TCs for periods of high and low subsurface temperature in the eastern North Pacific.
Figure 3: Relationships between subsurface thermal conditions and TC activity in the north Eastern Pacific.
Figure 4: Changes in subsurface T105 between the twentieth-century historical conditions and the rcp8.5 global warming scenario.


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We thank P. Kim for providing the CMIP5 model’s outputs; M. Zhao for making his Atmospheric General Circulation Model outputs available; K. Emanuel for providing the potential intensity calculation program via his website; and C. Huang for help in data processing. This study was supported by US National Science Foundation grants ATM1034798 and ATM1406601, US Department of Energy grant DESC005110, US NOAA grant NA10OAR4310200, the China Meteorological Special Project (GYHY201206033) and the 973 Program of China (2010CB950404 and 2013CB430203). I.I.L.’s work is supported by Taiwan’s Ministry of Science and Technology under grants NSC 101-2111-M-002-002-MY2, NSC 101-2628-M-002-001-MY4 and 102R7803.

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F.F.J. conceived the idea. J.B. conducted most of the analysis. I.I.L. contributed to SSTPI and OCPI calculations and analysis. F.F.J. and J.B. contributed to writing the paper. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to F.-F. Jin or J. Boucharel.

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Jin, FF., Boucharel, J. & Lin, II. Eastern Pacific tropical cyclones intensified by El Niño delivery of subsurface ocean heat. Nature 516, 82–85 (2014).

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