Strictly Biennial Cycles in ENSO

Continuing from a previous post describing the historical evolution of ocean dynamics and tidal theory, this paper gives an early history of ENSO [1].

The El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is among the most pervasive natural climate oscillations on earth, affecting the web of life from plankton to people. During mature El Niño (La Niña) events, the sea surface temperature (SST) in the eastern equatorial Pacific warms (cools), leading to global-scale responses in the terrestrial biosphere transmitted through modifications of large-scale atmospheric circulation. The dynamics of—and global responses to—ENSO have been studied for nearly eight decades (Walker and Bliss 1932; Ropelewski and Halpert 1989; Kiladis and Diaz 1989; Yulaeva and Wallace 1994). Cyclic patterns in climate events have also been connected to something resembling ENSO as early as the mid-nineteenth century. Reminiscing on his 1832 visit to Argentina during his expedition on the H.M.S. Beagle, British naturalist Charles Darwin notes “[t]hese droughts to a certain degree seem to be almost periodical; I was told the dates of several others, and the intervals were about fifteen years” (Darwin 1839). Nearly 60 years later, Darwin enters into his journal “. . . variations in climate sometimes appear to be the effect of the operation of some very general cause” (Darwin 1896). Some believe this “very general cause” was actually an early piecing together of ENSO and its now notorious impact on extreme weather events in South America (Cerveny 2005). It is only a coincidence that Darwin may have been among the first to point out the cyclic nature of ENSO, and the focus of this paper is the association between ENSO and the Galápagos Islands, which also owe their fame to Darwin.

Beyond this history, the purpose of this particular paper is to investigate the mechanics behind ENSO and to isolate the "very general cause" that Darwin first hypothesized (and isn't it always the case how the most intellectually curious are at the root of scientific investigations?). According to this same paper[1], a "strictly biennial" cycle is routinely observed in ENSO when run with an ocean general circulation model (OGCM). Yet they observe correctly as quoted below that "Such strictly biennial regularity is not realistic, as ENSO in nature at present is neither perfectly regular nor significantly biennial."

Note how strong the biennial Fourier factor is in their simulation (along with the perfectly acceptable harmonic at 2/3 year which will shape the biennial into anything from a triangle to a square wave). With our ENSO model, I can easily reproduce a strictly biennial cycle just by changing the forcing from a lunar monthly cycle (incongruent with a yearly cycle) to anything that is a harmonic with the yearly cycle. So it's our claim that it's the lunar cycle that remains the key factor that changes the ENSO cycle into something that is "neither perfectly regular nor significantly biennial" in the words of the cited paper. The biennial factor is still there but it gets modified and split by the lunar cycle to the extent that no biennial factor remains in the Fourier spectra.

Yet if we look into the GCM's that researchers have developed and you will find that none have any capabilities for introducing a lunar tidal factor as a forcing.  Why is that?  Probably because someone long ago simply asserted that the lunar gravitational pull wasn't important for ENSO, contrary to its critical importance for understanding ocean tides.   So is this lunar effect really the "very general cause" that Darwin was thinking of to explain ENSO?

As a result of some intellectual curiosity to actually test the tidal forcing against a biennial modulation, I think the answer is a definitive yes. This is how sensitive the fitting of the model is to selection of the two forcing cycles

By adjusting the values progressively away from the true value for the lunar tidal cycle (27.2122 days for the Draconic cycle and 27.55455 days for the Anomalistic cycle), it will result in a smaller correlation coefficient. This doesn't happen by accident. Fitting this same model to 200 years of ENSO coral proxy data also doesn't happen by accident. And extracting precisely phased and correlated lunar cycles to the actual forcing applied to the earth's rotation also doesn't happen by accident. I think it's time for the GCM's to revisit the role of lunar forcing, just as NASA JPL was about to before they decided to pull the plug on their own lunar research initiative [2].


[1] K. B. Karnauskas, R. Murtugudde, and A. J. Busalacchi, “The effect of the Galápagos Islands on ENSO in forced ocean and hybrid coupled models,” Journal of Physical Oceanography, vol. 38, no. 11, pp. 2519–2534, 2008.

[2]  From a post-mortem —  "None of the peer-reviewers nor collaborators in 2006 had anticipated that the most remarkable large-scale process that we were going to find comes from ocean circulations fueled by Luni-Geo-Solar gravitational energy." 

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