Westerly Wind Bursts: ENSO’s Tail Rather than the Dog? Academic Article uri icon


  • Westerly wind bursts (WWBs) in the equatorial Pacific occur during the development of most El Niño events and are believed to be a major factor in ENSO's dynamics. Because of their short time scale, WWBs are normally considered part of a stochastic forcing of ENSO, completely external to the interannual ENSO variability. Recent observational studies, however, suggest that the occurrence and characteristics of WWBs may depend to some extent on the state of ENSO components, implying that WWBs, which force ENSO, are modulated by ENSO itself. Satellite and in situ observations are used here to show that WWBs are significantly more likely to occur when the warm pool is extended eastward. Based on these observations, WWBs are added to an intermediate complexity coupled ocean-atmosphere ENSO model. The representation of WWBs is idealized such that their occurrence is modulated by the warm pool extent. The resulting model run is compared with a run in which the WWBs are stochastically applied. The modulation of WWBs by ENSO results in an enhancement of the slow frequency component of the WWBs. This causes the amplitude of ENSO events forced by modulated WWBs to be twice as large as the amplitude of ENSO events forced by stochastic WWBs with the same amplitude and average frequency. Based on this result, it is suggested that the modulation of WWBs by the equatorial Pacific SST is a critical element of ENSO's dynamics, and that WWBs should not be regarded as purely stochastic forcing. In the paradigm proposed here, WWBs are still an important aspect of ENSO's dynamics, but they are treated as being partially stochastic and partially affected by the large-scale ENSO dynamics, rather than being completely external to ENSO. It is further shown that WWB modulation by the large-scale equatorial SST field is roughly equivalent to an increase in the ocean-atmosphere coupling strength, making the coupled equatorial Pacific effectively self-sustained.

publication date

  • December 2005