Energetics of the tropical Atlantic zonal mode

N. J. Burls, C. J.C. Reason, P. Penven, S. G. Philander

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31 Scopus citations


Sea surface temperature in the central-eastern equatorial Atlantic has a seasonal cycle far bigger than that of the Pacific, but interannual anomalies smaller than those of the Pacific. Given the amplitude of seasonal SST variability, one wonders whether the seasonal cycle in the Atlantic is so dominant that it is able to strongly influence the evolution of its interannual variability. In this study, interannual upper-ocean variability within the tropical Atlantic is viewed from an energetics perspective, and the role of ocean dynamics, in particular the role of oceanmemory, within zonalmode events is investigated. Unlike in the Pacific where seasonal and interannual variability involve distinctly different processes, the results suggest that the latter is a modulation of the former in the Atlantic, whose seasonal cycle has similarities with El Niño and La Niña in the Pacific. The ocean memory mechanism associated with the zonal mode appears to operate onmuch shorter time scales than that associated with the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, largely being associated with interannual modulations of a seasonally active delayed negative feedback response. Differences between the El Niño-Southern Oscillation and the zonal mode can then be accounted for in terms of these distinctions. Anomalous wind power over the tropical Atlantic is shown to be a potential predictor for zonal mode events. However, because zonal mode events are due to a modulation of seasonally active coupled processes, and not independent processes operating on interannual time scales as seen in the Pacific, the lead time of this potential predictability is limited.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)7442-7466
Number of pages25
JournalJournal of Climate
Issue number21
StatePublished - 2012

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Atmospheric Science


  • Atlantic Ocean
  • Energy budget/balance
  • Ocean dynamics
  • Ocean models
  • Tropics


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