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Keywords:

  • history;
  • ENSO;
  • MEI

Abstract

El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) remains the most important coupled ocean–atmosphere phenomenon to cause global climate variability on seasonal to interannual time scales. This paper addresses the need for a reliable ENSO index that allows for the historical definition of ENSO events in the instrumental record back to 1871. The Multivariate ENSO Index (MEI) was originally defined as the first seasonally varying principal component of six atmosphere–ocean (COADS) variable fields in the tropical Pacific basin. It provides for a more complete and flexible description of the ENSO phenomenon than single variable ENSO indices such as the SOI or Niño 3.4 SST. Here we describe our effort to boil the MEI concept down to its most essential components (based on SLP, SST) to enable historical analyses that more than double its period of record to 1871–2005. The new MEI.ext confirms that ENSO activity went through a lull in the early- to mid-20th century, but was just about as prevalent one century ago as in recent decades. We diagnose strong relationships between peak amplitudes of ENSO events and their duration, as well as between their peak amplitudes and their spacing (periodicity). Our effort is designed to help with the assessment of ENSO conditions through as long a record as possible to be able to differentiate between ‘natural’ ENSO behaviour in all its rich facets, and the ‘Brave New World’ of this phenomenon under evolving GHG-related climate conditions. So far, none of the behaviour of recent ENSO events appears unprecedented, including duration, onset timing, and spacing in the last few decades compared to a full century before then. Copyright © 2011 Royal Meteorological Society