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The Initiation and Developing Mechanisms of Central Pacific El Ninos


JINGZHI SU
Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences, Beijing, China

TIM LI
International Pacific Research Center, and Department of Meteorology, University of Hawaii at Manoa,
Honolulu, Hawaii

RENHE ZHANG
Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences, Beijing, China
(Manuscript received 18 October 2013, in final form 23 February 2014)
ABSTRACT
The initiation and developing mechanisms of four major central Pacific (CP) El Ni~
no events in 1994, 2002,
2004, and 2009 were investigated by analyzing oceanic and atmospheric reanalysis data. A mixed layer heat
budget analysis was conducted and the result shows that the initiation mechanism of the 1994 CP El Ni~
no is
very different from other CP El Ni~
nos in 2000s, while the developing mechanisms are similar among these
events. The initial sea surface temperature (SST) warming of the 1994 El Ni~
no was caused by enhanced solar
radiation, which was related to atmospheric meridional overturning circulation in association with positive
SST anomaly forcing in the subtropical Pacific. The subtropical SST anomalies also induced anticyclonic
surface wind stress curl anomalies, which caused the formation of subsurface warmer waters in the offequatorial regions. The off-equatorial subsurface warmer waters were transported farther equatorward by the
mean subsurface ocean currents, leading to the subsurface warming in the central equatorial Pacific. The
deepened thermocline anomaly at the equator further promoted a positive advective and thermocline
feedback so that the SST anomaly grew. During the initiation phase of the 2000s El Ni~
nos, ocean dynamics
played a dominant role, while the effect of surface heat flux anomalies was minor. Preexisting subsurface
warmer waters appeared in the equatorial region during their initiation phases. Such subsurface anomalies
can cause the SST warming in the central Pacific through induced anomalous eastward zonal currents that
advect high mean SST eastward. This positive zonal advective feedback, along with a positive thermocline
feedback, continued to warm the local SST throughout the developing phase of the 2000s El Ni~
no events.

1. Introduction
The El Ni~
noSouthern Oscillation (ENSO) is the most
pronounced interannual variability in the tropics, and has
far-reaching climatic impacts in many regions over the
world. Based on the spatial pattern of the sea surface
temperature anomalies (SSTAs), the El Ni~
no events are

Denotes Open Access content.

Corresponding author address: Dr. Su Jingzhi, Chinese Academy


of Meteorological Sciences, No. 46 Zhong-Guan-Cun South Avenue, Beijing 100081, China.
E-mail: sujz@cams.cma.gov.cn
DOI: 10.1175/JCLI-D-13-00640.1
2014 American Meteorological Society

classified into two types: one is the canonical eastern Pacific (EP) El Ni~
no with maximum SSTA centered in the
eastern equatorial Pacific and another is the central Pacific
(CP) El Ni~
no with maximum SSTA centered in the central
equatorial Pacific (Fu et al. 1986; Trenberth and Stepaniak
2001; Ashok et al. 2007; Kao and Yu 2009; Kug et al. 2009).
The atmospheric responses associated with the two types
of El Ni~
nos exhibit significant differences. For example, the
westerly anomalies during CP El Ni~
no events have a smaller
spatial scale and are located in the western Pacific, farther
westward compared to those in the EP El Ni~
no. Positive
precipitation anomalies appear in the central-eastern
equatorial Pacific during the EP El Ni~
no, but are located
mainly in the western Pacific during the CP El Ni~
no (Kao
and Yu 2009; Kug et al. 2009; Chung and Li 2013).

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Compared with the generally accepted classic theories


about the generation mechanism of the EP El Ni~
no,
there are debates concerning the initiation dynamics of
the CP El Ni~
no. The generation of the CP El Ni~
no is attributed to wind-forced thermocline variations (Ashok
et al. 2007), the zonal advection of mean SST by anomalous zonal currents (Kug et al. 2009), or subtropical
SSTA in the northeastern Pacific (Yu et al. 2010). The
decadal mean climate state tends to play an important
role in favoring more frequent occurrence of the CP El
Ni~
no during the recent decade after 1999 (Xiang et al.
2013; Chung and Li 2013).
Furthermore, there are different developing features
and climatic impacts among the CP El Ni~
no events. For
example, Wang and Wang (2013) classified the CP El
Ni~
no events into two groups with different SST evolution characteristics. The complex evolution features of
the CP El Ni~
no imply that more than one mechanism
may operate during the CP El Ni~
no initiation.
In the present study, we will investigate the different
initiation mechanisms for the CP El Ni~
no events. The
rest of this paper is organized as follows. In section 2, the
data and analysis methods are described. The initiation
and developing mechanisms of four major CP El Ni~
nos
since 1980 are investigated in section 3. A summary and
discussions are given in section 4.

2. Data and methods


The ocean data used in this study are the National
Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP) Global
Ocean Data Assimilation System (GODAS; Saha et al.
2006), the European Centre for Medium-Range
Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) Ocean Reanalysis System, version 4 (ORAS4; Balmaseda et al. 2013), and the
Simple Ocean Data Assimilation (SODA) reanalysis,
version 2.1.6 (Carton and Giese 2008). The GODAS has
a constant zonal resolution of 18 and a variable meridional grid of 18 enhanced to 1/ 38 within 108 of the equator,
and has 40 levels with a 10-m resolution in the upper
200 m. The ORAS4 has a horizontal resolution of 18 3 18
and 42 levels in the vertical. The SODA 2.1.6 has an
average horizontal resolution of 0.48 (longitude) 3 0.258
(latitude) and 40 levels of eddy-permitting resolution
with 10-m spacing near the surface.
The atmospheric data are from the 40-yr ECMWF
Re-Analysis (ERA-40) data (Uppala et al. 2005). The
SST data are from the Met Office Hadley Centre Sea Ice
and Sea Surface Temperature dataset (HadISST) with
a resolution of 1.08 3 1.08 (Rayner et al. 2003). The
precipitation data are Global Precipitation Climatology
Project (GPCP), version 2.2 with a grid resolution of
2.58 3 2.58 (Adler et al. 2003). The outgoing longwave
radiation (OLR) data are from the National Oceanic

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and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) interpolated


OLR with a resolution of 2.58 3 2.58 (Liebmann and
Smith 1996). The surface heat flux data are from the
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) objectively analyzed airsea fluxes (OAFlux; Yu et al.
2008), NCEP reanalysis version 2 (NCEP2; Kanamitsu
et al. 2002), and the twentieth-century reanalysis, version 2 (20CRv2).
To understand the relative roles of ocean advection
and surface heat flux terms in causing the SSTA tendencies, the oceanic mixed layer heat budget is diagnosed. The mixed layer temperature (MLT) tendency
equation may be written as
T 0
Q0
5 2(V 0  $T 1 V  $T 0 ) 2 (V 0  $T 0 ) 1 net 1 R ,
t
rCP H
(1)
where V 5 (u, y, w) represents the 3D ocean current,
$ 5 (/x, /y, /z) denotes the 3D gradient operator,
a prime (0) represents the anomaly variables, a bar ( )
represents the climatologic annual cycle variables,
2(V 0  $T 1 V  $T 0 ) is the sum of linear advection
terms, 2(V 0  $T 0 ) denotes 3D nonlinear temperature
advection terms, Qnet represents the net heat flux at
the ocean surface, R represents the residual term,
r 5 103 kg m23 represents the density of water,
CP 5 4000 J kg21 K21 represents the specific heat of
water, and H 5 50 m denotes the climatologic mixed
layer depth. All of the mixed layer fields are calculated
based on the layer average. The climatologic annual
cycle is calculated based on the period of 19802000.
The heat budget is calculated based on the ensemble
mean of three ocean reanalysis datasets (GODAS,
ORAS4, and SODA 2.1.6) and three heat flux datasets
(OAFlux, NCEP2, and 20CRv2), and only statistically
significant terms will be discussed in the following. To
investigate the specific cause of ocean current anomalies, wind-induced Ekman currents and geostrophic
currents are diagnosed respectively in an equatorial
b-plane framework (see Su et al. 2010 for details). Note
that the Ekman currents discussed here differ from
traditional Ekman currents in midlatitudes, and strictly
speaking they should be called wind-driven ocean
surface currents in an equatorial b plane.

3. Initiation and developing dynamics of four major


CP El Ninos
a. Evolution features of CP El Ni~
nos
Four major CP El Ni~
no events (1994, 2002, 2004, and
2009) after 1980 were identified (Fig. 1). A common

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FIG. 1. The evolution of SSTA along the equator (within 58N58S) for four major CP El Ni~
no events. Contour intervals for SSTA are
0.258C. The SST data are from OISST. The initiation phases of the El Ni~
no cases are indicated by gray shading.

feature of the four CP El Ni~


no events is that the maximum SSTA were all confined in the central equatorial
Pacific (around 18081308W) during their major developing period and they reached a mature phase in DJF
(Fig. 1). Xiang et al. (2013) and Chung and Li (2013)
have a detailed discussion on why the four events are
classified as pure CP El Ni~
no events and how they
differ from other mixed events.
To investigate the SSTA evolution process during the
four CP El Ni~
no events, a CP region (58N58S, 1808
1308W) is defined. Figure 2 illustrates the temporal
evolution characteristics of the SSTA averaged in the
CP region for the four CP El Ni~
no cases. Because we are
interested in how each of the CP El Ni~
nos was initiated
and what contributed to their development, we separate
the El Ni~
no evolution processes into two periods: an
initiation phase and a developing phase. The initiation
phase is defined as the period when the SSTA in the CP
region are close to zero but the SSTA tendency is positive. The reason to focus on this phase is that we intend
to investigate what causes the initial warming tendency
while the SST anomaly itself is nearly normal. The gray
shaded period represents the initiation phase for each
of the CP El Ni~
no events (i.e., FebruaryApril 1994,
November 2001January 2002, MarchMay 2004, April
June 2009). The developing phase follows the initiation
phase and ends when the SSTA reach a maximum.
During this phase warm SSTAs have already set up,
and there are positive feedbacks between the ocean
and atmosphere. The periods of the developing phase
for the four events are MayNovember 1994, February
November 2002, JuneNovember 2004, and July

November 2009. Before selecting the initiation and


developing phases, the SSTA time series are smoothed
with a 3-month running mean to remove high-frequency
signals. The initiation and developing phases in the observed SSTA are well captured by the MLT anomalies
obtained from the GODAS, ORAS4, and SODA 2.1.6
ocean data, which adds confidence in using those ocean
reanalysis data for the heat budget diagnosis. Because the
SODA 2.1.6 data cover the period of 19582008, only
the GODAS and ORAS4 data are used for the analysis of
the 2009 case.
An examination of subsurface temperature anomalies
reveals that there are apparent discrepancies among the
four CP El Ni~
no events (Fig. 3). During the initiation of
the 2002, 2004, and 2009 El Ni~
nos, positive subsurface
temperature anomalies appeared in the westerncentral
equatorial Pacific. However, there was no subsurface
warming during the initiation of the 1994 El Ni~
no.
In fact, during that time anomalous cold subsurface
waters occupied the whole basin, expanding from the
western Pacific warm pool to the eastern boundary.
Positive subsurface temperature anomalies started to
appear in the central equatorial Pacific around June
1994, when the local SSTA already become positive.
The significant difference of the subsurface temperature anomalies indicates that the 1994 El Ni~
no is
a unique event compared with other CP El Ni~
nos.
Hence, the initiation mechanism for the 1994 El Ni~
no
may be different from other CP El Ni~
nos. In the following, we separate the CP El Ni~
no events into two
groups: the 1994 El Ni~
no and 2002, 2004, and 2009 El
Ni~
nos (hereafter the 2000s El Ni~
no), and investigate

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FIG. 2. Time series of SSTA in the CP region (58N58S, 18081308W). The SST data are from OISST. The temperature anomalies in the mixed layer of GODAS, ORAS4, and SODA 2.1.6 are also shown. The initiation phases for
each of CP El Ni~
no cases are indicated by gray shading.

the potential different mechanisms of the two groups


of CP El Ni~
nos.

b. Initiation mechanism of the 1994 El Ni~


no
The SST anomalies in the central equatorial Pacific
became positive around March 1994. However, the local
subsurface temperature anomalies were still negative
at that period (Fig. 3). This suggests that the sources of the
initial SST warming of the 1994 El Ni~
no should not arise
from the local subsurface but from other factors. Our heat
budget analysis indicates that the major cause of the SST
warming during the initiation phase of the 1994 El Ni~
no is
the surface heat flux anomaly (0.108C month21), which is
contributed mainly by the enhanced surface shortwave
radiation (0.118C month21; see Table 1). The enhanced
shortwave heat fluxes in the CP region during the initiation phase were associated with local anomalous descending motion (omega) at 850 hPa (0.01 Pa s21),
positive OLR anomalies (10 W m22), and suppressed
precipitation (15 mm day21) in the CP region (Fig. 4).
The descending anomalies in the equatorial region
were connected to anomalous ascending motions in

the subtropical region, which can be seen both in the


divergent wind field at 850 hPa (Fig. 5a) and in the
meridional-vertical section zonally averaged in the
central Pacific (Fig. 5b). In the northern subtropics,
there were marked warm SSTAs, and the anomalous
ascending motions located over the center of the warm
SSTA in the northeastern subtropical Pacific. In the
southern subtropical Pacific (about 108208S, 1808
1308W), there were also anomalous ascending motions
over the local warm SSTA there. The surface wind
anomalies converged toward the center of the warm
SSTA in the northern and southern subtropics. In
fact, these positive SSTAs in the subtropical regions
persisted from the previous winter (November 1993
January 1994), and so were the anomalous ascending
(descending) motions (not shown). Thus, the observational analysis indicates that the warm SSTAs in the
northern (southern) subtropical Pacific induced
anomalous ascending motions locally, which further
caused the descending anomalies near the equator
through the change of atmospheric meridional vertical
overturning circulation.

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FIG. 3. Mean temperature anomalies along the equator (within 58N58S) during the initiation phase for each of CP El
Ni~
no events. Contours intervals are 0.58C. The temperature data are from GODAS.

The potential role of the subtropical SSTA on the


onset of theCP El Ni~
no has been discussed in previous
studies (e.g., Yu et al. 2010). Yu et al. (2010) emphasized
that the initial warming in the CP region is a result of
the southward propagation of warm SSTAs from the
subtropics by a mechanism similar to the seasonal
footprinting mechanism (Vimont et al. 2003). However,
our analyses show that at least for the 1994 event, the
positive SSTAs in the subtropics did not move, rather
they made a remote impact on the SST warming in the
central equatorial Pacific through the atmospheric
overturning circulation change. Yu et al. (2010) mentioned that the southward SSTA movement depends on
weakened latent heat fluxes on the equatorward side of
the subtropical warm SSTA. However, the changes of
latent heat fluxes in the CP region were minor during the
initiation phase of the 1994 El Ni~
no (Fig. 4). The major
contribution of the initial SST warming in the central
Pacific for the 1994 El Ni~
no came from the enhanced
solar radiation (Table 1).

c. The developing mechanism of the 1994 El Ni~


no
Once the SSTAs were initiated, they can further grow
through various positive airsea feedback processes (Li
1997). The heat budget analysis results (Table 1) show
that the major contributor for the SST warming
during the developing phase of the 1994 El Ni~
no was
the zonal advection feedback term (2u0 T/x . 0;
about 0.208C month21). The thermocline feedback term
(2wT0 /z . 0; about 0.038C month21) also made a positive contribution for the developing SSTA. Note that
during the developing phase there were pronounced
eastward zonal ocean current anomalies (u0 . 0)
across the whole equatorial Pacific basin (Fig. 6b). Since
the zonal climatologic SST gradient is negative
(T/x , 0), the zonal advective feedback is positive
(2u0 T/x . 0) in the CP region. To investigate what
causes the anomalous zonal ocean current, we diagnosed anomalous geostrophic and wind-induced
Ekman currents in an equatorial b-plane framework,

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FIG. 4. The time series of downward shortwave heat flux


anomalies (red line; unit: W m22), downward latent heat flux
anomalies (blue line; unit: W m22), anomalous downward vertical
motion at 850 hPa (green line; unit: 1023 Pa s21), anomalous OLR
(magenta line; unit: W m22), and precipitation anomalies (black
line; unit: mm day21) averaged in the CP region (58N58S, 1808
1308W) for the 1994 El Ni~
no event. The heat flux fields are derived
from OAFlux. The OLR values are from NOAA data. The vertical
motion anomalies are from ERA-40. The precipitation anomalies
are from GPCP. The initiation phase (FebruaryApril) for the 1994
El Ni~
no is indicated by gray shading.

following Su et al. (2010). The result shows that the


anomalous eastward zonal currents are largely caused
by the geostrophic component, while the wind-induced
Ekman currents are very weak (Fig. 7). Note that the
geostrophic current is negatively correlated with

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the meridional second derivative of Z20 (208C isothermal) anomalies [ug 5 2(g0 /b)(2 h/y2 )]. A local
maximum of positive Z20 anomalies on the equator
results in an anomalous eastward geostrophic current
(u0 . 0).
The positive Z20 anomalies in the central Pacific can
also lead a positive thermocline feedback term. This is
because a positive Z20 anomaly causes a warmer subsurface temperature anomaly, which can further warm
the surface water through anomalous temperature advection by the mean upwelling (w . 0). However, such
a positive thermocline feedback (2wT 0 /z . 0) is
weaker in the central Pacific than in the eastern Pacific.
As the zonal advective feedback is crucial for the
development of the 1994 El Ni~
no, we further examined
the temporal evolution of the anomalous zonal ocean
current in the CP region. The time evolution of the areaaveraged anomalous zonal ocean current obtained from
the aforementioned three ocean assimilation datasets,
an independent ocean current reanalysis dataset of the
Ocean Surface Current Analyses Real-time (OSCAR),
and their ensemble mean were plotted in Fig. 8. The
anomalous zonal current averaged in the CP region is
negative (westward) at the beginning of 1994. After the
initiation phase, the anomalous zonal current changes
to positive (eastward), and reaches its maximum at
the mature phase of the 1994 El Ni~
no. The positive
zonal current anomalies started to develop rapidly in
May 1994, which coincided well with the occurrence of
positive Z20 anomalies at the equator. Thus, a key point
is what caused the development of positive equatorial

FIG. 5. (a) The anomalous velocity potential (contours, with intervals of 0.25 3 1026 m2 s21) and divergent wind
(vectors, in m s21) at 850 hPa and (b) meridional and vertical velocity anomalies along the meridional section averaged over the region of 18081308W during the initiation phase (FebruaryApril) of the 1994 El Ni~
no. The
anomalous SSTA (shading, with intervals of 0.258C) are shown in (a). The contour interval for vertical velocity
anomalies is 0.25 3 1022 Pa s21 in (b).

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TABLE 1. The mixed layer temperature tendency terms averaged in the CP region (58N58S, 18081308W) for (a) the initiation phase and
(b) the developing phase of the 1994 El Ni~
no and the 2000s El Ni~
nos. The units are 8C month21. The values are the ensemble mean of
results from three ocean reanalysis datasets (GODAS, ORAS4, and SODA 2.1.6) and three surface heat flux datasets (OAFlux, NCEP2,
and 20CRv2). The terms that have a ratio of mean to standard deviation greater than 1.3 are set bold.
(a)

1994
2000s

DT/dt

Advection

Surface heat

2u0 T/x

2wT0 /z

Solar radiation

0.09
0.17

0.02
0.20

0.10
20.00

20:03 6 0.05
0.13 6 0.10

20:01 6 0.01
0.04 6 0.01

0:11 6 0.02
20.05 6 0.04

(b)

1994
2000s

DT/dt

Advection

Surface heat

2u0 T/x

2wT0 /z

Solar radiation

0.18
0.17

0.35
0.35

20.06
20.23

0.20 6 0.05
0:17 6 0.09

0:03 6 0.00
0:03 6 0.01

0:02 6 0.02
20:01 6 0.04

Z20 anomalies during the initial developing phase


(around May).

d. Origins of the equatorial subsurface warming


of the 1994 El Ni~
no
As mentioned previously, the temperature anomalies
in the subsurface in the equatorial Pacific were negative
at the beginning of 1994, and the subsurface waters became warmer after the initiation phase. A question that
needs to be addressed is what are the origins of the later
subsurface warming?

During the initiation phase, the subsurface temperature anomalies in the western equatorial Pacific were
negative (Figs. 3 and 6a). Hence, the local Z20 deepening
in the central equatorial Pacific was not originated from
the western equatorial Pacific. It is noted that the local
Z20 deepening at the central equatorial Pacific came
from off-equatorial subsurface warming (around 58
108N and 58108S; Fig. 6a). In the meridional-depth
section averaged in the central Pacific (Figs. 9ac),
there is clear evidence that the subsurface temperature
anomalies in the equatorial region changed gradually

FIG. 6. Mean mixed layer (050 m) current anomalies (vectors), temperature anomalies (magenta contour, with
intervals of 18C), and 208C isotherm depth anomalies (shading, with intervals of 2.5 m) during (top) the initiation
phase and (bottom) the developing phase of (left) the 1994 El Ni~
no and (right) the 2000s El Ni~
nos. The climatological
mean temperatures are indicated by gray heavy contours with intervals of 38C. The composite fields are the ensemble
mean of GODAS, ORAS4, and SODA 2.1.6.

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FIG. 7. Anomalies of zonal currents from the ocean reanalysis data (ensemble mean of GODAS and SODA 2.1.6,
solid line), geostrophic currents (dashed line), and Ekman currents (dotted line) along the equator (averaged within
28N28S) during the developing phase of each El Ni~
no.

from negative values (FebruaryApril) to positive values


(MayJuly). During the FebruaryApril period, the
anomalous subsurface warming located mainly in the
off-equatorial region (south of 68S and north of 68N).
The off-equatorial subsurface warm waters gradually
moved toward the equator in MayJuly due to the advection of the mean subsurface ocean currents (vectors
in Figs. 9ac). During AugustOctober, the subsurface
warming reached a maximum value (about 1.08C) near
the equator, while the off-equatorial warming tended to
fade. From the timelatitude section of temperature
anomalies along the layers between the base of mixed
layer (50 m) and the s 5 23:1 isopycnal surface (Fig. 9d),
the equatorward migration of temperature anomalies
from 58108N to 58108S can be seen explicitly. The
movement of the off-equatorial warm waters to the
equatorial region was caused by the mean meridional
ocean circulation associated with the subtropical cell
(STC) in the tropical Pacific. The STC is characterized
by poleward currents at the surface and equatorward
currents at the subsurface (around 100-m depth; e.g.,
Capotondi et al. 2005). Because of the asymmetric
structure of STC on both sides of the equator, the

equatorward transportation of off-equatorial subsurface warm waters mainly came from the Southern
Hemisphere. The mean equatorward velocity of the
subsurface waters near the central equatorial Pacific
region is about 0.04 m s21, or about 100 km month21.
Hence, it took 35 months for the off-equatorial subsurface waters to be transported to the equatorial region.
The causes of the off-equatorial subsurface warming
were attributed to anomalous surface wind stress forcing. In response to the subtropical warm SSTA in the
North (South) Hemisphere during the initiation phase,
the wind stress anomalies formed an anticyclonic wind
stress curl at both side of the equator (blue shaded areas
in Fig. 10). The anticyclonic wind curl tends to deepen
the local thermocline depth, leading to a positive subsurface warming in the off-equatorial regions.

e. Initiation and developing mechanisms for the 2000s


El Ni~
nos
The diagnosis of the mixed layer heat budget analysis
for the 2000s El Ni~
nos shows that the SSTA warming
during the initiation phase in the CP region was primarily caused by ocean dynamics, rather than surface

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FIG. 8. Time series of zonal velocity anomalies from GODAS


(red line), ORAS4 (green line), SODA 2.1.6 (blue line), OSCAR
reanalysis dataset (magenta line), and their ensemble mean (thick
black dash line) in the CP region (58N58S, 18081308W). The developing phase (MayNovember) of the 1994 El Ni~
no is indicated
by gray shading.

heat flux anomalies. Table 1 shows that the ocean temperature advection term dominated during the initiation
phase (0.208C month21). Among the advection terms,
major contributions were the zonal advection feedback
term (0.138C month21) and the thermocline feedback
term (0.048C month21) (Table 1). The diagnosis results
from individual CP El Ni~
no events in the 2000s resemble
the composite average shown in Table 1.
During the initiation phase of the 2000s El Ni~
no, there
were preexisting positive subsurface temperature
anomalies in the central equatorial Pacific (Fig. 3), and
the composite Z20 anomaly had a maximum near the
equator (Fig. 6c). The deepened Z20 anomalies at the
equator could cause anomalous eastward geostrophic
currents (figure not shown) and promote a positive zonal
ocean advection feedback. Meanwhile the warmer subsurface waters could be upwelled to the surface to warm
the SST through a positive thermocline feedback.
What induced the initial subsurface warming in the
equatorial Pacific prior to the initiation phase? It is
noted that a few months prior to the initiation phases
of the 2000s El Ni~
nos the ocean thermocline exhibited
a positive anomaly in the western equatorial Pacific.
Associated with the positive thermocline anomaly
were the equatorial easterly anomalies and/or anticyclonic wind stress curl anomalies in the off-equatorial
western Pacific (figure not shown). A further study is
needed to understand the origin of these precursor wind
anomalies.
During the developing phase of the 2000s El Ni~
nos,
the zonal advection feedback and the thermocline
feedback continued to make positive contributions to

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the SST warming in the CP region (Table 1). The diagnosis of the zonal current anomaly in an equatorial
b-plane framework shows that the anomalous positive
zonal ocean currents are largely contributed by the
geostrophic current during the developing phase of the
2000s El Ni~
nos (Fig. 7), a similar mechanism operated
during the developing phase of the 1994 El Ni~
no.
After the positive SST anomalies in the central Pacific
were induced, the equatorial subsurface warming was
enhanced through the positive Bjerknes feedback during the developing phase of the 2000s El Ni~
nos. As
a result, the anomalous positive zonal ocean currents
increased gradually from the initiation phase to the developing phase (Figs. 6c,d). Hence, the positive zonal
advective feedback became larger from the initiation
phase to the developing phase. The results obtained
here in general agree with previous studies, such as the
wind-forced thermocline variations (Ashok et al. 2007)
and the zonal advection of the mean SST by anomalous
zonal currents (Kug et al. 2009). In fact, these two
mechanisms operated together during the evolution of
the 2000s CP El Ni~
no events.
Hence, the observational analysis above indicates that
the initiation mechanism of the 1994 El Ni~
no is different
from that of the 2000s El Ni~
nos. The reason for such
a difference lies on the distinctive precursor patterns of
subsurface temperature anomalies in the equatorial region and SSTA patterns in the subtropical regions.
During the initiation phase of the 1994 El Ni~
no, there
were negative subsurface temperature anomalies at the
equator, while there were positive subsurface temperature anomalies during the initiation phase of the 2000s
El Ni~
nos (Figs. 3 and 6a,c). It is the subtropical warm
SSTA that initiated the initial warming in the CP in 1994
through the change of anomalous atmospheric meridional overturning circulation and so-induced shortwave
radiation anomalies and through the generation and
advection of the anomalous subsurface warm waters.

4. Summary and discussion


By analyzing the oceanic and atmospheric reanalysis
data, the initiation and developing mechanisms of the
CP El Ni~
nos in 1994, 2002, 2004, and 2009 were investigated. It is found that the initiation mechanism of
the 1994 El Ni~
no is very different from the 2000s El
Ni~
nos, while the developing mechanisms bear some
similarity.
Figure 11 is a schematic diagram illustrating the major
initiation/developing processes associated with the two
CP El Ni~
no groups. The initiation of the 1994 El Ni~
no
was preceded by positive SSTA in the subtropical Pacific, which triggered anomalous convection in the

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VOLUME 27

FIG. 9. (a)(c) Composite ocean temperature anomalies (contour, with intervals of 0.28C) and climatologic mean meridional ocean
currents (vectors) averaged in the central Pacific (18081308W) during (a) FebruaryApril, (b) MayJuly, and (c) AugustOctober for the
1994 El Ni~
no. (d) The timelatitude section of temperature anomalies along the layers between the base of mixed layer (50 m) and the
s 5 23:1 isopycnal surface averaged over (18081308W). The time is from January 1993 to December 1994. The annual mean depth of
s 5 23:1 isopycnal surface is indicated by magenta lines in (a)(c). The magenta arrows indicate the equatorward movement of the
temperature anomalies. The composite fields are from the ensemble mean of GODAS, ORAS4, and SODA 2.1.6.

subtropics and led to anomalous descending motion on


the equator through the atmospheric meridional overturning circulation change. Associated with the
anomalous descending, the downward solar radiation
was enhanced in the equatorial central Pacific, inducing
the initial SSTA warming there. Meanwhile, the
subtropical SSTA forced anomalous surface winds in
such a way that they induced anticyclonic surface wind
stress curl at both sides of the equator and led to warm
subsurface temperature anomalies in the off-equatorial
regions. The off-equatorial subsurface warm waters
were further transported equatorward by the mean
equatorward currents associated with the lower branch

of the STC, causing the subsurface warming right on the


equator.
During the initiation phase of the 2000s El Ni~
nos,
the subsurface warm waters have already appeared in
the equatorial region. The anomalous deepened Z20
brought out the anomalous eastward zonal geostrophic
currents, warming the SST through a positive zonal advection anomaly. Meanwhile, the anomalous warm
subsurface waters were upwelled to the surface to warm
the local SST. Both the processes were responsible for
the initial warming during the 2010 El Ni~
no events.
Ramesh and Murtugudde (2013) claimed that all flavors of El Ni~
nos have similar early subsurface origins.

15 JUNE 2014

SU ET AL.

FIG. 10. The surface wind stress anomalies (vectors, in 1 3


1029 N m22), wind stress curl (shading, with intervals of 1 3
1028 Pa m21), and SSTA (contours) during the initiation phase
(FebruaryApril) of the 1994 El Ni~
no. The positive (negative)
SSTA are shown as red (blue) contours (at intervals of 0.258C).
Blue (red) shading denotes anticyclonic (cyclonic) wind stress curl
anomalies.

However, the 1994 El Ni~


no event is excluded in their
study. On the other hand, many previous studies (see
Table 1 of Xiang et al. 2013) classified the 1994 El Ni~
no
into the CP El Ni~
no. The analysis here clearly shows that
the 1994 El Ni~
no is a unique CP El Ni~
no due to the
precursor negative subsurface temperature in the
equatorial region during the initiation phase. From this
respect, the 1994 El Ni~
no can be viewed as a sensitive
experiment in the nature climate system. During the
initiation of this unique CP El Ni~
no, there was no influence from previous subsurface warming signals, and
the warming arose from shortwave radiation forcing in
association with the subtropical SST anomalies.
Concerning the impacts of the subtropical SST anomalies on the formation of CP El Ni~
no, Yu et al. (2010)
emphasized the equatorward moving of the SST anomalies from the subtropics. Our analysis shows that such
a subtropical SSTA forcing scenario did not operate in
1994. The impact of the SSTA in the subtropics was primarily through the change of the atmospheric meridional
overturning circulation. It is worth mentioning that there
were no significant positive SSTAs in the subtropical
Pacific during the initiation phase of the 2000s CP El
Ni~
nos, which raises a question about whether or not Yu
et al.s subtropical SSTA propagating mechanism is valid.
Classical El Ni~
no theories suggested that the origin of
the subsurface temperature anomalies at the equator
arose from off-equatorial subsurface temperature

4483

anomalies through the westward propagation and reflection of the equatorial Rossby waves (e.g., Suarez and
Schopf 1988) or zonal mean meridional Sverdrup upperocean mass transport (Li 1997; Jin 1997). This study
suggests an alternative way, that is, the off-equatorial
subsurface warm waters can be transported to the equatorial region by climatologic mean subsurface currents.
This subsurface advection mechanism is consistent with
a previous study by Zhang and Rothstein (2000), who
noticed that the off-equatorial subsurface anomalies
could be transported equatorward along isopycnal layers
during the initiation of the 1991/92 El Ni~
no.
One may wonder, given similar precursor thermocline
signals between 2000s CP El Ni~
nos and strong EP El
Ni~
nos such as those in 1982 and 1997, what is the essential cause of distinctive subsequent development
between the two types of El Ni~
nos? We argue that it is
primarily attributed to markedly different anomalous
surface windSST spatial phase relationships between
the two types of El Ni~
nos. For the CP El Ni~
nos, the zonal
wind and precipitation anomalies were located to the
west of a SSTA center, whereas for the 1982 and 1997
EP El Ni~
nos, they were approximately in phase with the
SSTA center (Xiang et al. 2013). As a result, the former
led to local growth of the SSTA in the CP because the
maximum thermocline anomaly is approximately in
phase with the SSTA, and the latter led to the eastward
propagation of the maximum SSTA because a positive
thermocline anomaly appeared to the east of the SSTA
center. The cause of the distinctive zonal windSST
phase relationships is, to a large extent, attributed to the
decadal change of the mean state, in particular, the decadal change of the background zonal SST gradient,
which was demonstrated by Chung and Li (2013) in
idealized atmospheric and oceanic model experiments.
The 1994 CP El Ni~
nos may be regarded as a special case
in which subtropical SSTA forcing had a maximum
vertical motion and shortwave radiation response in the
central equatorial Pacific.
The observational analysis in this study suggests that
there were different evolution features of the recorded El
Ni~
no events and that the initiation mechanisms
for individual El Ni~
nos could be different. For a particular
El Ni~
no type, its formation may be due to a single process
or the combination of several processes. Thus, it is necessary to investigate the initiation/developing mechanisms
for each of the El Ni~
nos. The results derived from the
current analysis have important implication for seasonal
climate prediction. It has been shown by many previous
studies (e.g., Ashok et al. 2007) that seasonal rainfall
anomalies over the Asian monsoon region have distinctive characteristics between the CP and EP El Ni~
nos.
Tropical cyclone activity is also markedly different in the

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FIG. 11. Schematic for the initiation/developing mechanisms of two central Pacific El Ni~
no
groups.

western Pacific (Chen and Tam 2010; Hong et al. 2011;


Chung and Li 2014). Thus, it is crucial to predict the type
of El Ni~
nos a few months in advance, in order to accurately forecast regional climate variations.
Acknowledgments. This work was done when JS visited
IPRC. JS and RZ were supported by the National Natural
Science Foundation of China (under Grants 41221064 and
41376020), the International S&T Cooperation Project of
the Ministry of Science and Technology of China under
Grant 2009DFA21430, and the key program of 2012Z001
in the Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences. TL
acknowledged the support of ONR Grant N00014-1210450

and NSF Grant AGS-1106536. GPCP Precipitation data


were provided by the NOAA/OAR/ESRL PSD, Boulder,
Colorado, USA, from website (http://www.esrl.noaa.
gov/psd/).
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