What is ENSO?
What is El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO)?
Note: Most of the information in this article is courtesy of climate.gov.
The El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is a recurring climate pattern involving changes in the temperature of waters in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. On periods ranging from about three to seven years, the surface waters across a large swath of the tropical Pacific Ocean warm or cool by anywhere from 1°C to 3°C, compared to normal.
This oscillating warming and cooling pattern, referred to as the ENSO cycle, directly affects rainfall distribution in the tropics and can have a strong influence on weather across the United States and other parts of the world. El Niño and La Niña are the extreme phases of the ENSO cycle; between these two phases is a third phase called ENSO-neutral.
El Niño: A warming of the ocean surface, or above-average sea surface temperatures (SST), in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. Over Indonesia, rainfall tends to become reduced while rainfall increases over the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. The low-level surface winds, which normally blow from east to west along the equator (“easterly winds”), instead weaken or, in some cases, start blowing the other direction (from west to east or “westerly winds”). In general, the warmer the ocean temperature anomalies, the stronger the El Ni
ño (and vice-versa).
La Niña: A cooling of the ocean surface, or below-average sea surface temperatures (SST), in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. Over Indonesia, rainfall tends to increase while rainfall decreases over the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. The normal easterly winds along the equator become even stronger. In general, the cooler the ocean temperature anomalies, the stronger the La Ni
ña (and vice-versa).
Neutral: Neither El Niño or La Niña. Often tropical Pacific SSTs are generally close to average. However, there are some instances when the ocean can look like it is in an El Niño or La Niña state, but the atmosphere is not playing along (or vice versa).
Maps of sea surface temperature anomaly in the Pacific Ocean during a strong La Niña (top, December 1988) and a strong El Niño (bottom, December 1997). Maps by NOAA Climate.gov, based on data provided by NOAA View.
ENSO is one of the most important climate phenomena on Earth due to its ability to change the global atmospheric circulation, which in turn, influences temperature and precipitation across the globe. We also focus on ENSO because we can often predict its arrival many seasons in advance of its strongest impacts on weather and climate.
So, by now, you might have noticed that while “ENSO” is a nice catchall acronym for all three states, that acronym doesn’t actually have the word La Niña in it. Why is that? Well, that is a fluke of history. Before La Niña was even recognized, South American fisherman noticed the warm up of coastal waters occurred every so often around Christmas. They referred to the warming as “El Niño,” (niño being Spanish for a boy child) in connection with the Christmas holiday.
Sir Gilbert Walker discovered the “Southern Oscillation,” or large-scale changes in sea level pressure across Indonesia and the tropical Pacific. However, he did not recognize that it was linked to changes in the Pacific Ocean or El Niño. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that Jacob Bjerknes and others realized that the changes in the ocean and the atmosphere were connected and the hybrid term “ENSO” was born. It wasn’t until the 1980s or later that the terms La Niña and Neutral gained prominence.
Typical winter impacts associated with ENSO neutral events. Colder probabilities are favored across north-central and northeast portions of the US, due to a polar jet stream shifted further south. Meanwhile, warmer probabilities are favored across ths southern US, with above normal precipitation favored across portions of the southeast US. Image courtesy of Ray Wolf, National Weather Serivce.
Typical late fall through early spring upper level jet stream positions associated with moderate to strong La Niña (left) and El Niño (right) events. During La Niña, a variable Pacific jet stream in association with a polar jet stream shifted further south favors below normal precipitation across the southern US, with below normal temperatures across the northern US. During El Niño, a strong and amplified Pacific jet stream extending across the southern US in association with a polar jet stream shifted further north into Canada favors above normal precipitation across the southern US, and above normal temperatures over the northern US. Based on original graphics from NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.