Atmosphere-ocean modeling experiments are used to investigate the formation of sea surface temperature (SST) anomalies in the North Pacific Ocean during fall and winter of the El Niño year. Experiments in which the Community Climate Model (CCM) surface fields are used to force a mixed layer ocean model in the North Pacific (no air-sea feedback) are compared to simulations in which the CCM and North Pacific Ocean model are coupled. Anomalies in the atmosphere and the North Pacific Ocean during El Niño are obtained from the difference between simulations with and without prescribed warm SST anomalies in the tropical Pacific. In both the forced and coupled experiments, the anomaly pattern resembles a composite of the actual SST anomaly field during El Niño: warm SSTs develop along the coast of North America and cold SSTs form in the central Pacific. In the coupled simulations, air-sea interaction results in a 25% to 50% reduction in the magnitude of the SST and mixed layer depth anomalies, resulting in more realistic SST fields. Coupling also decreases the SST anomaly variance; as a result, the anomaly centers remain statistically significant even though the magnitude of the anomalies are reduced.
Three additional sensitivity studies indicate that air-sea feedback and entrainment act to damp SST anomalies while Ekman pumping has a negligible effect on mixed layer depth and SST anomalies in midlatitudes.