Myth: El Nino/La Nina transitions caused by wind

This 2-D heat map, from Jialin Lin’s research group at The Ohio State University, shows the eastward propagation of the ocean subsurface wave leading to switch from La Niña to El Niño.

The above is from an informative OSU press release from last year titled Solving climate’s toughest questions, one challenge at a time. The following quotes are from that page, bold emphasis mine.

Jialin Lin, associate professor of geography, has spent the last two decades tackling those challenges, and in the past two years, he’s had breakthroughs in answering two of forecasting’s most pernicious questions: predicting the shift between El Niño and La Niña and predicting which hurricanes will rapidly intensify.

Now, he’s turning his attention to creating more accurate models predicting global warming and its impacts, leading an international team of 40 climate experts to create a new book identifying the highest-priority research questions for the next 30-50 years.

… still to be published

Lin set out to create a model that could accurately identify ENSO shifts by testing — and subsequently ruling out — all the theories and possibilities earlier researchers had proposed. Then, Lin realized current models only considered surface temperatures, and he decided to dive deeper.

He downloaded 140 years of deep-ocean temperature data, analyzed them and made a breakthrough discovery.

“After 20 years of research, I finally found that the shift was caused by an ocean wave 100 to 200 meters down in the deep ocean,” Lin said, whose research was published in a Nature journal. “The propagation of this wave from the western Pacific to the eastern Pacific generates the switch from La Niña to El Niño.”

The wave repeatedly appeared two years before an El Niño event developed, but Lin went one step further to explain what generated the wave and discovered it was caused by the moon’s tidal gravitational force.

“The tidal force is even easier to predict,” Lin said. “That will widen the possibility for an even longer lead of prediction. Now you can predict not only for two years before, but 10 years before.”

Essentially, the idea is that these subsurface waves can in no way be caused by surface wind as the latter only are observed later (likely as an after-effect of the sub-surface thermocline nearing the surface and thus modifying the atmospheric pressure gradient). This counters the long-standing belief that ENSO transitions occur as a result of prevailing wind shifts.

The other part of the article concerns correlating hurricane intensification is also interesting.

p.s. It’s all tides : Climatic Drivers of Extreme Sea Level Events Along the
Coastline of Western Australia

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