ENSO modulation: Is it decadally predictable?

Andrew T. Wittenberg, Anthony Rosati, Thomas L. Delworth, Gabriel Andres Vecchi, Fanrong Zeng

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

120 Scopus citations


Observations and climate simulations exhibit epochs of extreme El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) behavior that can persist for decades. Previous studies have revealed a wide range of ENSO responses to forcings from greenhouse gases, aerosols, and orbital variations, but they have also shown that interdecadal modulation of ENSO can arise even without such forcings. The present study examines the predictability of this intrinsically generated component of ENSO modulation, using a 4000-yr unforced control run from a global coupled GCM [GFDL Climate Model, version 2.1 (CM2.1)] with a fairly realistic representation of ENSO. ExtremeENSO epochs from the unforced simulation are reforecast using the same ("perfect") model but slightly perturbed initial conditions. These 40-member reforecast ensembles display potential predictability of the ENSO trajectory, extending up to several years ahead. However, no decadal-scale predictability of ENSO behavior is found. This indicates that multidecadal epochs of extreme ENSO behavior can arise not only intrinsically but also delicately and entirely at random. Previous work had shown that CM2.1 generates strong, reasonably realistic, decadally predictable high-latitude climate signals, as well as tropical and extratropical decadal signals that interact with ENSO. However, those slow variations appear not to lend significant decadal predictability to this model's ENSO behavior, at least in the absence of external forcings. While the potential implications of these results are sobering for decadal predictability, they also offer an expedited approach to model evaluation and development, in which large ensembles of short runs are executed in parallel, to quickly and robustly evaluate simulations of ENSO. Further implications are discussed for decadal prediction, attribution of past and future ENSO variations, and societal vulnerability.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2667-2681
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Climate
Issue number7
StatePublished - Apr 2014

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Atmospheric Science


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