The role of stochastic forcing in generating ENSO diversity

Erin E. Thomas, Daniel J. Vimont, Matthew Newman, Cécile Penland, Cristian Martínez-Villalobos

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Numerous oceanic and atmospheric phenomena influence El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) variability, complicating both prediction and analysis of the mechanisms responsible for generating ENSO diversity. Predictability of ENSO events depends on the characteristics of both the forecast initial conditions and the stochastic forcing that occurs subsequent to forecast initialization. Within a linear inverse model framework, stochastic forcing reduces ENSO predictability when it excites unpredictable growth or interference after the forecast is initialized, but also enhances ENSO predictability when it excites optimal initial conditions that maximize deterministic ENSO growth. Linear inverse modeling (LIM) allows for straightforward separation between predictable signal and unpredictable noise and so can diagnose its own skill. While previous LIM studies of ENSO focused on deterministic dynamics, here we explore how noise forcing influences ENSO diversity and predictability. This study identifies stochastic forcing details potentially contributing to the development of central Pacific (CP) or eastern Pacific (EP) ENSO characteristics. The technique is then used to diagnose the relative roles of initial conditions and noise forcing throughout the evolution of several ENSO events. LIM results show varying roles of noise forcing for any given event, highlighting its utility in separating deterministic from noise-forced contributions to the evolution of individual ENSO events. For example, the strong 1982 event was considerably more influenced by noise forcing late in its evolution than the strong 1997 event, which was more predictable with long lead times due to its deterministic growth. Furthermore, the 2014 deterministic trajectory suggests that a strong event in 2014 was unlikely.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)9125-9150
Number of pages26
JournalJournal of Climate
Issue number22
StatePublished - 1 Nov 2018


  • Atmosphere-ocean interaction
  • ENSO
  • El Nino
  • La Nina


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