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Hoerling, M. P., A. Kumar, and M. Zhong, 1997: El Niño, La Niña, and the nonlinearity of their teleconnections. J. Climate, 10, 1769-1786.


The paradigm of an atmospheric system varying linearly with respect to extreme phases of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation is questioned. It is argued that the global response to tropical Pacific sea surface temperature forcing will be inherently nonlinear. A physical basis for this intrinsic nonlinearity is the thermodynamic control on deep convection.

Climate statistics for warm and cold events of the tropical Pacific are analyzed separately for the northern winter periods during 1950-96. Composite analysis of 500-mb heights reveal planetary-scale teleconnection patterns, as noted in earlier studies. A new result is the evidence for an appreciable 35° longitude phase shift between the warm and cold event circulation composites, and the two wave trains appear to have different tropical origins. A large nonlinear component in North American surface climate anomalies is also found, which is consistent with such a phase shift in teleconnections. In the Tropics, rainfall anomalies also show evidence of nonlinear behavior. The maximum rain anomalies along the equator are located east of the date line during warm events, but west of the date line during cold events. The interpretation of this behavior is complicated, however, by the fact that composite warm event SST anomalies are not the exact inverse of their cold event counterparts.

Idealized atmospheric general circulation model (AGCM) experiments are performed in order to test the question of whether the observed nonlinearity is an intrinsic property of the atmospheric system. The model is forced with a composite SST anomaly that undergoes a realistic seasonally varying ENSO life cycle, as described by E. Rasmusson and T. Carpenter. Both positive and negative phases of the SST anomaly are used, and a 40-member ensemble of warm and cold event model simulations is conducted. A nonlinear climate response in the AGCM is found that closely resembles the observed composites, including a shift in the equatorial positions of the maxmium rain responses and a phase shift of teleconnection patterns in the upper troposphere. Barotropic model experiments indicate that the inherent nonlinearity in the tropical rain response may itself be responsible for the phase shift in the extratropical teleconnection patterns.