Kumar, A., and M. P. Hoerling, 2003: The nature and causes for the delayed atmospheric response to El Niño. J. Climate, 16, 1391-1403.


Remarkable among the atmospheric phenomena associated with El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is the lag in the zonal mean tropical thermal anomalies relative to equatorial east Pacific sea surface temperatures (SSTs). For the period 1950-99, the maximum correlation between observed zonal mean tropical 200-mb heights and a Niño-3.4 (5°N-5°S, 120°-170°W) SST index occurs when the atmosphere lags by 1-3 months, consistent with numerous previous studies. Results from atmospheric general circulation model (GCM) simulations forced by the monthly SST variations of the last half-century confirm and establish the robustness of this observed lag.

An additional feature of the delay in atmospheric response that involves an apparent memory or lingering of the tropical thermal anomalies several seasons beyond the Niño-3.4 SST index peak is documented in this study. It is characterized by a strong asymmetry in the strength of the zonal mean tropical 200-mb height response relative to that peak, being threefold stronger in the summer following the peak compared to the preceding summer. This occurs despite weaker Niño-3.4 SST forcing in the following summer compared to the preceding summer.

The 1-3-month lag in maximum correlation is reconciled by the fact that the rainfall evolution in the tropical Pacific associated with the ENSO SST anomalies itself lags one season, with the latter acting as the immediate forcing for the 200-mb heights. This aspect of the lagged behavior in the tropical atmospheric response occurs independent of any changes in SSTs outside of the tropical east Pacific core region of SST variability related to ENSO. The lingering of the tropical atmospheric thermal signal cannot, however, be reconciled with the ENSO-related SST variability in the tropical eastern Pacific. This part of the tropical atmospheric response is instead intimately tied to the tropical ocean's lagged response to the equatorial east Pacific SST variability, including a warming of the tropical Indian and Atlantic SSTs that peak several seasons after the Niño-3.4 warming peak.