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A combination mode of the annual cycle and the El Niño/Southern Oscillation


The El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is characterized by two main states: El Niño events defined by positive sea surface temperature anomalies in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean and La Niña events marked by cooler surface temperatures in the same region. ENSO is broadly considered to be an oscillatory instability of the coupled ocean–atmosphere system in the tropical Pacific1,2,3,4,5,6 that shows a tight interaction with the seasonal cycle. El Niño events typically peak in the boreal winter, but the mechanism governing this phase synchronization7 is unclear. Here we show, using observational data and climate model experiments, that the nonlinear atmospheric response to combined seasonal and inter-annual sea surface temperature changes gives rise to a near-annual combination climate mode with periods of 10 and 15 months. Specifically, we find that the associated southward shift of westerly wind anomalies during boreal winter and spring triggers the termination8 of large El Niño events. We conclude that combination mode dynamics and related shifts in western tropical Pacific rainfall patterns occur most prominently during strong El Niño events.

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Figure 1: Tropical Pacific surface wind modes.
Figure 2: Power spectra for PC1 and PC2 using the Blackman–Tukey method.
Figure 3: El Niño precipitation changes.

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This study was supported by US NSF grant ATM1034798, US Department of Energy grant DESC005110, US NOAA grant NA10OAR4310200, the 973 Program of China (2010CB950404) and the China Meteorological Special Project (GYHY201206016). A.T. was also supported by US NSF grant 1049219 and through the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC) through its sponsorship of the International Pacific Research Center (IPRC). This is IPRC publication number 956 and SOEST contribution number 8889. We thank M. Ghil for helpful comments.

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M.F.S., F-F.J. and A.T. designed the study. M.F.S. conducted the experiments, performed the analysis and wrote the initial draft of the manuscript. All authors discussed the results and helped improve the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Malte F. Stuecker or Fei-Fei Jin.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Stuecker, M., Timmermann, A., Jin, FF. et al. A combination mode of the annual cycle and the El Niño/Southern Oscillation. Nature Geosci 6, 540–544 (2013).

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