ENSO Basics: Westerly Wind Bursts Initiate an El Niño

This may seem like an unusual time to have this discussion. We’re presently in ENSO (El Niño-Southern Oscillation)-neutral conditions, meaning the tropical Pacific isn’t experiencing an El Niño or a La Niña. And based on the ENSO-forecasting models, NOAA says “ENSO-neutral is expected into the Northern Hemisphere spring 2014”. (See the NOAA weekly ENSO Update.)

But the question “what initiates an El Niño?” was raised again recently on the thread of a blog post at WattsUpWithThat, so I thought I’d bring the answer forward as a post.

This post includes 2 chapters of my book Who Turned on the Heat? The first is the basic discussion of the transition from ENSO-neutral conditions to El Niño (Chapter 3.5). I’m providing it for people who aren’t too familiar with the fundamental processes that take place during the evolution of El Niño events. The second chapter included in this post is the discussion of what initiates an El Niño beyond my usual basic description of “a weakening of the trade winds” (Chapter 4.15). There are many other topics discussed in Who Turned on the Heat? See the Table of Contents in the Free Preview.

# # #

3.5 The Transition from ENSO-Neutral to El Niño

While the tropical Pacific is in the ENSO-neutral phase, the trade winds push the warm water to the west so that sea level there is higher than it is in the east. The sea level would like to be the same height because of gravity, but the trade winds are holding all of that warm water in place. The trade winds are being reinforced by the warmer sea surface temperatures in the western tropical Pacific. Similarly, the warmer waters in the western tropical Pacific are being reinforced by the trade winds. They are providing positive feedback to one another (Bjerknes feedback). With the positive feedback, the tropical Pacific would tend to stay in the ENSO-neutral mode. Something has to force things to change.

The trade winds in the western Pacific are, like all winds, quite variable. They strengthen and weaken with changes in weather. The size and shape of the Pacific Warm Pool varies in response. However, under “normal” conditions, the trade winds continue to hold the warm water in the western tropical Pacific.

Suppose the trade winds were to weaken to the point, and weaken long enough, that they could no longer hold the warm water in place in the west Pacific Warm Pool. The water would slosh to the east.

That’s how an El Niño event starts. Figure 3-10 shows the ENSO-neutral conditions changing to El Niño.

Figure 3-10

As shown in Figure 3-10, the Equatorial Countercurrent in the Pacific carries the warm water eastward. Normally, it’s a relatively small current compared to the North and South Equatorial Currents, but during an El Niño, the Pacific Equatorial Countercurrent becomes much larger. See Figure 3-11.

Figure 3-11 presents maps that show the direction of the currents in the central portion of the tropical Pacific. The eastward-flowing Equatorial Countercurrent is shown in dark blue. The westward-flowing North and South Equatorial Currents are shown in the off-color green. The top map shows the relatively small Equatorial Countercurrent in December 1996, which was an ENSO-neutral month. The bottom map shows that it’s much larger near the peak of the 1997/98 El Niño in December 1997. The maps are available through the NASA Ocean Motion website, at their OSCAR webpage.

Figure 3-11

A couple of years ago, I used those maps of the tropical Pacific Ocean currents to create a series of animations that I presented on YouTube. The animations capture the strengthening of the Equatorial Countercurrent during the transition from ENSO-neutral phase to the 1997/98 El Niño phase and its subsequent weakening as the El Niño event transitions back toward ENSO-neutral. Because there are multiple animations showing different portions of the tropical Pacific, I’ll refer you to the post Equatorial Currents Before, During, and After The 1997/98 El Niño.

Figure 3-12 compares two ENSO-related variables: western equatorial Pacific trade wind strength and NINO3.4 sea surface temperature anomalies, our ENSO index. The NINO3.4 sea surface temperature anomalies have been scaled and inverted (multiplied by a scaling factor of -2.0) so that the variations in both datasets are in the same direction. That is, the El Niño events are now the large downward spikes. The western equatorial Pacific trade wind data is from the NOAA/Climate Prediction Center Monthly Atmospheric & SST Indices webpage. There it’s identified as “850 mb Trade Wind Index (135°East-180°West) 5°North-5°South West Pacific”. The Trade Wind Index data presented in the graph are the anomalies, which are the second group here. As illustrated, the El Niño events are preceded by significant drops in western equatorial Pacific trade wind strength.

Figure 3-12 RECAP

In Figure 3-11, we confirmed that the Equatorial Countercurrent enlarges during an El Niño, carrying the warm water from the Pacific Warm Pool eastward. The dark green curve of the trade wind anomalies leads the sea surface temperature in Figure 3-12. This confirms that a weakening of the trade winds in the western tropical Pacific happens a number of months before the NINO3.4 sea surface temperature anomalies register the El Niño event. In other words, it takes a couple of months after the weakening of the west Pacific trade winds for the enlarged Equatorial Countercurrent to carry the warm water east so that it warms the sea surface temperatures of the NINO3.4 region.

We’ll expand on this discussion, introducing a phenomenon called a Kelvin wave, in “Chapter 4.8 Subsurface Temperature and Temperature Anomaly Variations in the Equatorial Pacific And an Introduction to Kelvin Waves” [not included with this blog post].

# # #

4.15 Further Discussion on What Initiates an ENSO Event

When Anthony Watts cross posts one of my blog posts about ENSO at his widely read blog WattsUpWithThat, a question that’s often asked is “What initiates an El Niño?” My reply is typically something to the effect of: An El Niño event is initiated by a weakening of the tropical Pacific trade winds. This allows the warm water that had been held in place in the west Pacific Warm Pool to slosh east.

Sometimes there’s the follow-up question “What causes the trade winds to relax?” My usual reply is: There are a number of causes and they vary.

This doesn’t satisfy some people who are looking for a single definite answer, but, unfortunately, it’s true. There are numerous scientific papers that discuss this fact. In this chapter, we’ll present relatively simple descriptions of the many factors that cause the relaxing of the trade winds.

A phenomenon known as a Westerly Wind Burst (WWB), also known as a Westerly Wind Event (WWE), accompanies the relaxed trade winds. If you wanted to investigate this further, those would be the phrases to use in your searches. There are multiple causes of Westerly Wind Bursts, including:

1. Cross-equatorial tropical cyclones in the western tropical Pacific. This refers to a time when one tropical cyclone exists north of the equator in the western tropical Pacific, while, at the same time, another tropical cyclone exists there but south of the equator. The tropical cyclone winds in the Northern Hemisphere rotate counterclockwise and in the Southern Hemisphere they’re clockwise. Between them, the winds would be traveling from east to west west to east. These are discussed in Keen (1982) The Role of Cross-Equatorial Tropical Cyclone Pairs in the Southern Oscillation.

2. A single cyclone and series of cyclones in the western tropical Pacific. These are discussed in Hartten (1996) Synoptic settings of westerly wind bursts.

3. Cold surges from mid-latitudes, discussed in Harrison (1984) The appearance of sustained equatorial surface westerlies during the 1982 pacific warm event

4. Convective cloud clusters associated with the Madden–Julian oscillation (MJO). Refer to Zhang (1995) Atmospheric Intraseasonal Variability at the Surface in the Tropical Western Pacific Ocean.

As noted earlier, there are a plethora of other papers that discuss these factors. There is a good overall discussion in Vecchi and Harrison (2000) Tropical Pacific Sea Surface Temperature Anomalies, El Niño, and Equatorial Westerly Wind Events.

Then, after you’ve digested all of the factors that can trigger El Niño events, there’s a study that could shift your understanding once again. The paper is Yu et al (2003) Case analysis of a role of ENSO in regulating the generation of westerly wind bursts in the Western Equatorial Pacific. Yup, you read that title correctly. Yu et al (2003) found that ENSO can create favorable background conditions for westerly wind bursts. In other words, ENSO has the built-in ability to trigger itself.


El Niño events are initiated by the relaxation of the trade winds associated with a single or a series of Westerly Wind Bursts in the western tropical Pacific. The causes of Westerly Wind Bursts are tropical cyclones (individual, multiple, and cross equatorial), cold surges from the mid-latitudes, and convection associated with the Madden–Julian oscillation (MJO), or a combination of them. To complicate things, there are indications that ENSO can create the background conditions that promote Westerly Wind Bursts.

[End of reprints from Who Turned on the Heat?]

Something to ponder before you argue that ENSO can’t create the conditions that help to initiate an El Niño, consider that Yu et al (2003) are considering low-frequency ENSO-neutral conditions to be a part of ENSO.


Why should you be interested? Sea surface temperature records indicate El Niño and La Niña events are responsible for the warming of global sea surface temperature anomalies over the past 31+ years, not manmade greenhouse gases. I’ve searched sea surface temperature records for more than 5 years now, and I’ve searched ocean heat content records for more than 4 years, and I can find no evidence of an anthropogenic greenhouse gas signal. That is, the data indicates the warming of the global oceans has been caused by Mother Nature, not anthropogenic greenhouse gases.

For a further discussion, see the essay (pdf) titled The Manmade Global Warming Challenge. (It’s 42MB, but it’s free and worth the download time.)

Last year, I published my e-book (pdf) about the phenomena called El Niño and La Niña. It’s titled Who Turned on the Heat? with the subtitle The Unsuspected Global Warming Culprit, El Niño Southern Oscillation. It is intended for persons (with or without technical backgrounds) interested in learning about El Niño and La Niña events and in understanding the natural causes of the warming of our global oceans for the past 30 years. Because land surface air temperatures simply exaggerate the natural warming of the global oceans over annual and multidecadal time periods, the vast majority of the warming taking place on land is natural as well. The book is the product of years of research of the satellite-era sea surface temperature data that’s available to the public via the internet. It presents how the data accounts for its warming—and there are no indications the warming was caused by manmade greenhouse gases. None at all.

Who Turned on the Heat? was introduced in the blog post “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about El Niño and La Niña… …Well Just about Everything”. The Free Preview includes the Table of Contents; the Introduction; the beginning of Section 1, with the cartoon-like illustrations; the discussion About the Cover; and the Closing.

Please buy a copy. (Credit/Debit Card through PayPal. You do NOT need to open a PayPal account.) Simply scroll down to the “Don’t Have a PayPal Account” purchase option. It’s only US$8.00. Sales of my ebooks allow me to continue my research into human-induced and natural climate change and to continue to blog here at Climate Observations and at WattsUpWithThat?



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Bloke down the pub

The ENSO prediction page you point to on the wuwt reference pages always seems to be such a scattergun image that someone somewhere has to be right.

Bill Illis

Agree 100% with this.
ESRL Reanalysis V2 recently extended its Wind data back to 1871 and, perhaps not surprisingly, we find the Trade Wind and ENSO link remains extremely strong throughout that entire period.
One other little snippet, it is really the Western Pacific Trade Winds which have the most variability versus the Eastern Pacific. And then, the Western Pacific’s variability is much greater in the winter months. We have sometimes noted the ENSO tends to peak around Christmas and pondered why that is. It is because the Western Trades can be blowing “east or west” around this time while they are mostly to the west in the summer months and the eastern Pacific is almost always mostly to the west. A difficult to read chart but that is what it shows.


Sorry to be OT but Jerry Coyne at the “Why Evolution is True” website is celebrating being higher in the web ratings than “Watts up with that”, a ‘global warming denial website’ apparently. I like the WEIT website but Jerry doesn’t even seem to be aware that ‘Global Warming’ had to be rebranded as ‘Climate Change’ years ago.

Atmospheric CO2 is not the cause of ENSO. ENSO is controlling the rate of accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere. The emissions from this area are at least ten times all anthropogenic emissions.


“That is, the data indicates the warming of the global oceans has been caused by Mother Nature, not anthropogenic greenhouse gases.”
Well Mother Nature isn’t real so doubt it’s her 😉
More seriously from reading this article I didn’t understand which natural process you think is causing the warming?


Thanks I’ll take a look.

It would seen likely that during an El Nino the rate of upwelling along the coast of the Americas from the deep ocean would be reduced, leading to an increase in surface temps due to reduced cooling.

G. Karst

Bob, I was wondering if there is any linkage with the monsoon winds or are they disconnected such that one does not affect the other? Thx GK


Super-informative, Bob. I always learn something new (to me) from your posts. For example:

“In other words, it takes a couple of months after the weakening of the west Pacific trade winds for the enlarged Equatorial Countercurrent to carry the warm water east so that it warms the sea surface temperatures of the NINO3.4 region.”

This little (big) clue allows us “under-studies” to recognize when conditions may be changing to El Nino.


Bob, I am not qualified to comment on your work, but can comment on the impact of “El Nino” events and the “Southern Oscillation Index” on public opinion in Australia.
For years, we were regaled with spiels in every weather report (emanating from the BOM) about the “El Nino”. Now that it has gone, we hear nothing.
Same goes for the the SOI. It used to be tremendously important, mentioned every day, but now we hear nothing about it.
Bob, if you have a minute, what was it that was so compelling about the SOI?


Geez, Bob, are you in competition with Mosher about drive-by cryptic comments?
I asked you about why the SOI was considered to be so important that it was mentioned in our weather forecasts daily, explaining it was used to scare people for years, and you just said “oh, well, it’s one of those indicators that we experts use.”
Thanks for nothing. And, if you can’t explain it it plain language, perhaps there is a faint possibility that you can’t, because while the concept of the SOI is thrown about, you consider it beneath your dignity to explain what it means, and why the BOM considered it to be so important.

Why would anyone “argue that ENSO can’t create the conditions that help to initiate an El Niño”?
Emergent phenomena usually contain short-lived positive feedback loops as initiators.

gopal panicker

good going Bob…if you can explain the ENSO…more power to you

Thanks, Bob. Good article!


It looks like the answer to the question “what initiates an El Niño?” is “We don’t know”, but at least now we know what it looks like from the top. I have a feeling there is a lot of vertical energy motion that we’re missing by not looking at the vertical motion (This is the realm of Willis’ thermostat hypothesis).

I don’t know if anyone has really attempted to actually measure the rate of emmisions, but my calculations on seasonal changes in rates of accumulation at sources (ENSO area) and sinks (Arctic) suggests the global natural source and sink rates are around 20 times the anthropogenic emission rate. The IPPC claims these natural processes balance out and do not change with time and that anthropogenic emissions is the cause of the accumulation in the atmosphere. If you factor out seasonal variations and calculate a twenty-five month running slope to get a net rate of accumulation, you will produce a global signiture for atmospheric CO2 accumulation. This signiture clearly shows the strong el-Ninos with a lag of about six-months. It does not follow the signiture of anthropogenic emissions very well but the long term rates are about the same magnitude. Correlation isn’t cause and effect. The water vapor/CO2 reaction in thunder clouds is the controlling mechnism. Some one try to prove me wrong.


What the author of whyevolutionistrue actually said was:
“My dream is fulfilled; this website has (temporarily) surpassed “Watts up with that?” —a global-warming denialist site—in popularity.”
And he posts a graphic showing that that was true, for that particular day.
Accurate and not at all misleading, if somehwhat trivial.
@Stonyground, what do you think the “CC” in “IPCC” stands for, named in 1988?


How does JC’s stadium wave signal fit in?


Tail wags dog.

“El Niño events are initiated by the relaxation of the trade winds associated with a single or a series of Westerly Wind Bursts in the western tropical Pacific. The causes of Westerly Wind Bursts are tropical cyclones (individual, multiple, and cross equatorial), cold surges from the mid-latitudes, and convection associated with the Madden–Julian oscillation (MJO), or a combination of them. To complicate things, there are indications that ENSO can create the background conditions that promote Westerly Wind Bursts.”
Been saying for years that the key indicator to el Nino is to watch trade wind anomalies. This is pretty much one of the primary things I look at. We currently have a westerly anomaly in the far Western Pacific. I would say right now that the probability is higher for El Nino development than La Nina based on the current state of the trades.


Bob, thanks for responding. Believe it or not, I know what SOI stands for, what it means, and even that the BOM used it as a way of “predicting” our weather.
But, you have just reverted to your original answer – it is a metric that we weather gurus use.
My question is – why was this metric so meaningful that we had it in our weather forecasts for years? What is it? Why was it made so important? How come, for years, we were told that the “Southern Oscillation Index” was doing this or that by our weather forecasters? And then, suddenly, all that disappeared?

Theo Goodwin

Bob Tisdale says:
October 23, 2013 at 8:26 am
“dp says: “It looks like the answer to the question ‘what initiates an El Niño?’ is ‘We don’t know…”
Actually, they do good job of diagnosing after the fact as illustrated with the linked papers. But they can’t predict what will initiate one in advance.”
Diagnosing after the fact is an analytical task. Models and time-series analysis are very useful in this kind of activity. Scientific prediction is grounded in well confirmed physical hypotheses. No prediction means no science. The answer to the question is: “We don’t know.”


Well done, Bob. I raise my glass and slosh my beer in your direction.


For those curious about sea surface temperature anomalies:
Also, the NINA3.4 region lies within 5°N to 5°S, 170°W to 120°W. (A 10° equatorial strip aligned roughly with the eastern tip of Russia on the west, Point Conception, California on the east.


And a flu pandemic extension to the story is here—-


Resourceguy says:
October 23, 2013 at 12:23 pm
Plausible. Thanks.

I don’t see how warm water sloshing around in the Pacific can affect the earth`s temperature as a whole .Redistribute and cause local changes of course but the temperature of the planet as a whole ?? For this heat has to either appear or disappear not just change its locale from one part of the Pacific to another.


The mental link that has not been made explicit here is that, as a pressure index, SOI is intimately connected with the forces that drive geostrophic winds, of which the trades are a component.


Christopher Corvin:
You’re correct. Mere sloshing of the Pacific basin (a la standing wave) will not change the SSTs at all. That concept should not be confounded with changes in true currents and in upwelling intensity brought about by changes in prevailing winds.


Here in Victoria, Australia we have had an unusually windy season in the last 4 months we have almost had constant nor-westers or westerly gales since the end of spring. Cold fronts and lows passing to the south of the continent.

Keith Minto

Crosspatch, I use http://www.bom.gov.au/climate/enso/sst_wind_anom_5day.large.gif the TAO Triton 5day SST and winds. The wind anomaly is a puzzle (what is the baseline?) but does indicate a westerly wind direction change.

You seem to be asking a political question, as to why the SOI is not being talked about as much in the media or by government bureaucrats as it has been in the past, rather than a scientific one. That is probably beyond Bob’s area of expertise.


Bob Tisdale:
I’m curious. What has seeing your phenomenological reply to Christopher Korvin to do with my purely dynamically based remark to him?

Ulric Lyons

Looking at BOM ENSO monitoring graphs, NINO and NINO2 regions start warming a month or two before NINO3.4, e.g. around Jan 2009, Jan 2011, Feb 2012 and Jan 2013:
I should imagine that is due to a cessation of Ekman transport of the Humboldt Current to the surface.