Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres

Evolution of El Niño–Southern Oscillation and global atmospheric surface temperatures


  • This is a commentary on DOI:


[1] The origins of the delayed increases in global surface temperature accompanying El Niño events and the implications for the role of diabatic processes in El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) are explored. The evolution of global mean surface temperatures, zonal means and fields of sea surface temperatures, land surface temperatures, precipitation, outgoing longwave radiation, vertically integrated diabatic heating and divergence of atmospheric energy transports, and ocean heat content in the Pacific is documented using correlation and regression analysis. For 1950–1998, ENSO linearly accounts for 0.06°C of global surface temperature increase. Warming events peak 3 months after SSTs in the Niño 3.4 region, somewhat less than is found in previous studies. Warming at the surface progressively extends to about ±30° latitude with lags of several months. While the development of ocean heat content anomalies resembles that of the delayed oscillator paradigm, the damping of anomalies through heat fluxes into the atmosphere introduces a substantial diabatic component to the discharge and recharge of the ocean heat content. However, most of the delayed warming outside of the tropical Pacific comes from persistent changes in atmospheric circulation forced from the tropical Pacific. A major part of the ocean heat loss to the atmosphere is through evaporation and thus is realized in the atmosphere as latent heating in precipitation, which drives teleconnections. Reduced precipitation and increased solar radiation in Australia, Southeast Asia, parts of Africa, and northern South America contribute to surface warming that peaks several months after the El Niño event. Teleconnections contribute to the extensive warming over Alaska and western Canada through a deeper Aleutian low and stronger southerly flow into these regions 0–12 months later. The 1976/1977 climate shift and the effects of two major volcanic eruptions in the past 2 decades are reflected in different evolution of ENSO events. At the surface, for 1979–1998 the warming in the central equatorial Pacific develops from the west and progresses eastward, while for 1950–1978 the anomalous warming begins along the coast of South America and spreads westward. The eastern Pacific south of the equator warms 4–8 months later for 1979–1998 but cools from 1950 to 1978.