Is El Niño sporadic or cyclic?

S. George Philander, Alexey Fedorov

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

96 Scopus citations


Is El Niño one phase of a continual, self-sustaining natural mode of the coupled ocean-atmosphere that has La Niña as the complementary phase? Or is El Niño a temporary departure from "normal" conditions "triggered" by a random disturbance such as a burst of westerly winds? A growing body of evidence-stability analyses, studies of the energetics, simulations that reproduce the statistics of sea surface temperature variations in the eastern equatorial Pacific-indicates that reality corresponds to a compromise between these two possibilities: The observed Southern Oscillation between El Niño and La Niña corresponds to a weakly damped mode that is sustained by random disturbances. This means that the predictability of El Niño is limited by the continual presence of "noise" so that forecasts should be probabilistic. The Southern Oscillation is also subject to decadal modulations. How it will be influenced by global warming is a matter of considerable uncertainty.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)579-594
Number of pages16
JournalAnnual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences
StatePublished - 2003

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Space and Planetary Science


  • Energetics
  • La Niña
  • Predictability
  • Southern Oscillation
  • Stability


Dive into the research topics of 'Is El Niño sporadic or cyclic?'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this