ENSO feedbacks and time scale in a multimodel ensemble


The background state of the equatorial Pacific determines the prevalence of a "slow" recharge oscillator-type ENSO over a "fast" quasi-biennial surface-driven ENSO. The first is controlled to a large extent by the thermocline feedback, whereas the latter is related to enhanced zonal advective feedback. In this study, dynamical diagnostics are used to investigate the relative importance of these two feedbacks in the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project and its relation with the differences in ENSO-like variability among the models. The focus is on the role of the mean oceanic surface circulation in controlling the relative weight of the two feedbacks. By the means of an intermediate-type ocean model of the tropical Pacific "tuned" from the coupled general circulation model (CGCM) outputs, the contribution of the advection terms (vertical versus zonal) to the rate of SST change is estimated. A new finding is that biases in the advection terms are to a large extent r elated to the biases in the mean surface circulation. The latter are used to infer the dominant ENSO feedback for each CGCM. This allows classifying the CGCMs in 3 groups that account for the dominant feedback process of the ENSO cycle: horizontal advection (mainly in the western Pacific), vertical advection (mainly in the eastern Pacific), and the combination of both mechanisms. Based on such classification, the analysis also reveals that the models exhibit distinctive behavior with respect to the characteristics of ENSO: for most models, an enhanced (diminished) contribution of the zonal advective feedback is associated with faster (slower) ENSO and a tendency toward a cooler (warmer) mean state in the western-to-central Pacific Ocean. The results support the interpretation that biases in the mean state are sustained/maintained by the privileged mode of variability associated with the dominant feedback mechanism in the models. In particular, the models having a dominant zonal advective feedback exhibit significant cold SST asymmetry (or negative skewness) in the western equatorial Pacific.