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El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO)

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Category: Weather Weather
Content source: SKYbrary About SKYbrary
Content control: SKYbrary About SKYbrary
Tag(s) Climatic Phenomena


El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is an irregularly periodical variation in winds and sea surface temperatures over the tropical eastern Pacific Ocean. It affects much of the tropics and subtropics. The warming phase is known as El Niño and the cooling phase as La Niña. Southern Oscillation is the accompanying atmospheric component, coupled with the sea temperature change: El Niño is accompanied with high, and La Niña with low air surface pressure in the tropical western Pacific. The two periods last several months each and typically occur every few years. Their effects vary in intensity.

The two phases relate to the Walker circulation, discovered by Gilbert Walker during the early twentieth century. The Walker circulation is caused by the pressure gradient force that results from a high pressure system over the eastern Pacific Ocean, and a low pressure system over Indonesia. When the Walker circulation weakens or reverses, an El Niño results, causing the ocean surface to be warmer than average, as upwelling of cold water occurs less, or not at all. An especially strong Walker circulation causes a La Niña, resulting in cooler ocean temperatures due to increased upwelling. Mechanisms that cause the oscillation remain under study. The extremes of this climate pattern's oscillations cause extreme weather (such as floods and droughts) in many regions of the world. Developing countries dependent upon agriculture and fishing, particularly those bordering the Pacific Ocean, are the most affected.

Southern Oscillation

The Southern Oscillation is the atmospheric component of El Niño. This component is an oscillation in surface air pressure between the tropical eastern and the western Pacific Ocean waters. The strength of the Southern Oscillation is measured by the Southern Oscillation Index (SOI). The SOI is computed from fluctuations in the surface air pressure difference between Tahiti (in the Pacific) and Darwin, Australia (on the Indian Ocean).

  • El Niño episodes have negative SOI, meaning there is lower pressure over Tahiti and higher pressure in Darwin.
  • La Niña episodes have positive SOI, meaning there is higher pressure in Tahiti and lower in Darwin.

Low atmospheric pressure tends to occur over warm water and high pressure occurs over cold water, in part because of deep convection over the warm water. El Niño episodes are defined as sustained warming of the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, thus resulting in a decrease in the strength of the Pacific trade winds, and a reduction in rainfall over eastern and northern Australia. La Niña episodes are defined as sustained cooling of the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, thus resulting in an increase in the strength of the Pacific trade winds, and the opposite effects in Australia when compared to El Niño.

Although the Southern Oscillation Index has a long station record going back to the 1800s, its reliability is limited due to the fact that both Darwin and Tahiti are located well South of the Equator resulting in the surface air pressure at both locations being less directly related to ENSO. To overcome this, a new index was created, being named Equatorial Southern Oscillation Index (EQSOI). To generate this index data, two new regions, centered on the Equator, were delimited to create a new index: The western one is located over Indonesia and the eastern one is located over equatorial Pacific, close to the South American coast. However, data on EQSOI only goes back to 1949.

Impacts on Precipitation

South America

The effects of El Niño in South America are direct and strong. An El Niño is associated with warm and very wet weather months in April–October along the coasts of northern Peru and Ecuador, causing major flooding whenever the event is strong or extreme.

Southeast Asia

La Niña causes a drop in sea surface temperatures over Southeast Asia and heavy rains over Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia.

North America

To the north across Alaska, La Niña events lead to drier than normal conditions, while El Niño events do not have a correlation towards dry or wet conditions.

During El Niño events, increased precipitation is expected in California due to a more southerly, zonal, storm track. During La Niña, increased precipitation is diverted into the Pacific Northwest due to a more northerly storm track. During La Niña events, the storm track shifts far enough northward to bring wetter than normal winter conditions (in the form of increased snowfall) to the Midwestern states, as well as hot and dry summers.

During the El Niño portion of ENSO, increased precipitation falls along the Gulf coast and Southeast USA due to a stronger than normal, and more southerly, polar jet stream.

ENSO is also linked to rainfall over Puerto Rico.

During an El Niño, snowfall is greater than average across the southern Rockies and Sierra Nevada mountain range, and is well-below normal across the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes states. During a La Niña, snowfall is above normal across the Pacific Northwest and western Great Lakes.

Pacific Ocean

In the late winter and spring during El Niño events, drier than average conditions can be expected in Hawaii. On Guam during El Niño years, dry season precipitation averages below normal. However, the threat of a tropical cyclone is over triple what is normal during El Niño years, so extreme shorter duration rainfall events are possible. On American Samoa during El Niño events, precipitation averages about 10 percent above normal, while La Niña events lead to precipitation amounts which average close to 10 percent below normal.

Related Articles

For further information on the impact on aviation, see the separate articles on El Niño and La Niña.