On the relationship between Atlantic Niño variability and ocean dynamics

2017 - Climate Dynamics, 51 (1-2). pp. 597-612


Tina Dippe

Additional authors:

Richard J. Greatbatch, Hui Ding




The Atlantic Niño is the dominant mode of interannual sea surface temperature (SST) variability in the eastern equatorial Atlantic. Current coupled global climate models struggle to reproduce its variability. This is thought to be partly related to an equatorial SST bias that inhibits summer cold tongue growth. Here, we address the question whether the equatorial SST bias affects the ability of a coupled global climate model to produce realistic dynamical SST variability. We assess this by decomposing SST variability into dynamical and stochastic components. To compare our model results with observations, we employ empirical linear models of dynamical SST that, based on the Bjerknes feedback, use the two predictors sea surface height and zonal surface wind. We find that observed dynamical SST variance shows a pronounced seasonal cycle. It peaks during the active phase of the Atlantic Niño and is then roughly 4–7 times larger than stochastic SST variance. This indicates that the Atlantic Niño is a dynamical phenomenon that is related to the Bjerknes feedback. In the coupled model, the SST bias suppresses the summer peak in dynamical SST variance. Bias reduction, however, improves the representation of the seasonal cold tongue and enhances dynamical SST variability by supplying a background state that allows key feedbacks of the tropical ocean–atmosphere system to operate in the model. Due to the small zonal extent of the equatorial Atlantic, the observed Bjerknes feedback acts quasi-instantaneously during the dynamically active periods of boreal summer and early boreal winter. Then, all elements of the observed Bjerknes feedback operate simultaneously. The model cannot reproduce this, although it hints at a better performance when using bias reduction.