How Does the Evolution of the 2012/13 El Niño Stack Up Against the Others since 1982?

In addition to the title discussion, this post will serve as the Mid-July 2012 Sea Surface Temperature Anomaly Update. It also includes a status update on my book about El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO).


NINO3.4 sea surface temperature anomalies (a commonly used ENSO index) have been above the +0.5 deg C threshold of an El Niño for 4 weeks. While it’s far from an “official” El Niño, it appears that it’s likely to become one. Let’s see how the 2012/13 El Niño is evolving compared to past El Niño events. Figure 1 compares the weekly NINO3.4 sea surface temperature anomalies for each El Niño event since 1982, starting with the first week in January of those years. The 2012 data is in red, using a greater weighting. The first thing that stands out in the graph is how there really is nothing typical about the evolution of El Niño events. Five started from ENSO-neutral conditions; that is, with NINO3.4 sea surface temperature anomalies between -0.5 and +0.5 deg C. Five, including the current one, started from La Niña conditions, with the NINO3.4 sea surface temperatures cooler than -0.5 deg C. And there’s the outlier, the 1987/88 portion of the 2-year 1986/87/88 El Niño. Other than having the coolest NINO3.4 sea surface temperature anomalies at one point, there’s nothing remarkable about the evolution of the NINO3.4 sea surface temperature anomalies this year.

Figure 1

Figure 2 compares the evolution of the El Niño events that started from La Niña conditions. This year’s NINO3.4 sea surface temperature anomalies had been tracking along at the pace of the most recent El Niño, the one that occurred in 2009/10, until recently. Over the past two weeks, NINO3.4 sea surface temperature anomalies have been cooling.

Figure 2

NINO3.4 sea surface temperature anomalies appear as though they’re being suppressed by the cooler-than-normal waters being circulated southward from the North Pacific, which should be feedback from the back-to-back La Niña events. Refer to the sea surface temperature animation from Unisys, Animation 1, but keep in mind that positive temperature anomalies are light blue. Most people associate shades of blue with negative anomalies. (You may need to click on the animation to start it.)

Animation 1

It will be interesting to see how long the cooler waters from the North Pacific can suppress the central sea surface temperatures in the east-central equatorial Pacific.

Figure 3 shows the NINO1+2 sea surface temperature anomalies for the same El Niño events that were presented in Figure 2. The NINO1+2 region is in the eastern tropical Pacific, just south of the equator. The coordinates are 10S-0, 90W-80W. This year the NINO1+2 sea surface temperature anomalies warmed before the NINO3.4 region, but they also have been cooling.

Figure 3

But referring to the animation of NOAA subsurface temperature anomaly cross sections for the equatorial Pacific, Animation 2, there’s still a pocket of elevated anomalies at depth in the eastern equatorial Pacific, and there’s a long way to go before the peak of the ENSO season.

Animation 2


Weekly NINO3.4 sea surface temperature anomalies for the week centered on July 11, 2012 are approximately +0.55 deg C, having dropped from about +0.73 over the past few weeks.

Figure 4

And global sea surface temperature anomalies are continuing the upward march, rebounding from La Niña conditions and responding to the evolving El Niño.

Figure 5


After a good number of suggestions, the current working title of the book is Who Turned on the Heat? with the subtitle El Niño-Southern Oscillation, the Unsuspected Global Warming Culprit. I’ve added 4 chapters to Section 2 and 7 chapters to Section 4 since the last status update, and I’m currently working on Chapter 5.6. See the following Table of Contents as it exists at present. Please let me know if there are any topics you can think of that I’ve missed.


Section 1 – A Description of El Niño and La Niña Events Using Annotated Illustrations

1.1 Preliminary Discussion of the ENSO Annotated Illustrations

1.2 The ENSO Annotated Illustrations

1.3 Recap of Section 1

Section 2 – A Few Preliminary Discussions

2.1 Do the Words “Oscillation” and “Cycle” in the names “El Niño-Southern Oscillation” and “ENSO Cycle” Cause Misunderstandings?

2.2 The Types of Graphs Presented

2.3 Linear Trends

2.4 How El Niño and La Niña Events Present Themselves in the Sea Surface Temperature Record

2.5 Our Primary ENSO Index is NINO3.4 Sea Surface Temperature Anomalies

2.6 How ENSO Events Are Presented in the Text

2.7 On the Use of Anomalies

2.8 Converting Monthly Absolute Data to Anomalies

2.9 Using the Model Mean of the IPCC’s Climate Models

2.10 Why We’ll Be Using Satellite-Based Sea Surface Temperature Data

2.11 Data Smoothing and Detrending

2.12 The IPCC Says Only Climate Models Forced by Manmade Greenhouse Gases can Explain the Recent Warming

2.13 The Additional Mode of Natural Variability in the North Atlantic Sea Surface Temperatures—Introduction to the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation

2.14 The Two Primary Data Sources

2.15 Recap of Section 2

Section 3 – A More Detailed Discussion of ENSO Processes

3.1 A Quick Look at the Size of the Pacific Ocean

3.2 Pacific Trade Winds and Ocean Currents

3.3 Putting the Equatorial Pacific Cross Sections in Perspective

3.4 The ENSO-Neutral State of the Tropical Pacific

3.5 The Transition from ENSO-Neutral to El Niño

3.6 El Niño Phase

3.7 The Transition from El Niño to ENSO Neutral

3.8 La Niña Phase

3.9 The Transition from La Niña to ENSO-Neutral

3.10 The Recharge of Ocean Heat during the La Niña

3.11 Summary of Section 3

Section 4 – Additional ENSO Discussions

4.1 How El Niño Events Cause Surface Temperatures to Warm Outside of the Tropical Pacific

4.2 Central Pacific versus East Pacific El Niño Events

4.3 ENSO Indices

4.4 ENSO Indices Also Fail to Capture the Relative Strengths of ENSO Events

4.5 The Repeating Sequence of Primary and Secondary El Niño Events

4.6 A Look at How a Few More Tropical Pacific Variables Respond to ENSO

4.7 ENSO Events Run in Synch with the Annual Seasonal Cycle

4.8 Subsurface Temperature and Temperature Anomaly Variations in the Equatorial Pacific And an Introduction to Kelvin Waves

4.9 An Introduction to the Delayed Oscillator Mechanism

4.10 ENSO Versus the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO)

4.11 There is a Multidecadal Component to ENSO

4.12 ENSO Monitoring

4.13 An Introduction to the Indian Ocean Dipole and How It’s Impacted by ENSO

4.14 Impacts of ENSO Events on Regional Temperature and Precipitation

4.15 Further Discussion on What Initiates an ENSO Event

4.16 Weak, Moderate and Strong ENSO Event Thresholds

4.17 ENSO – A Cycle or Series of Events?

4.18 ENSO Influence on Tropical Cyclones (Hurricanes)

Section 5 – The Long-Term Impacts of Major ENSO Events on Global Temperature Anomalies

5.1 No Surprise – East Pacific Sea Surface Temperature Anomalies Mimic ENSO, But Where’s The Anthropogenic Global Warming Signal?

5.2 But Global Sea Surface Temperature Anomalies Have Warmed During the Satellite Era

5.3 Where and Why Sea Surface Temperatures Can Warm in Response to Certain El Niño AND La Niña Events

5.4 The Obvious ENSO-Caused Upward Shifts in the Sea Surface Temperature Anomalies of the East Indian and West Pacific Oceans

5.5 The ENSO-Caused Upward Shifts Still Exist if We Add the South Atlantic and West Indian Sea Surface Temperature Data to the East Indian and West Pacific

5.6 The Additional Warming of the North Atlantic Sea Surface Temperatures is Caused by the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation AND Additional ENSO-Impacted Processes

5.7 The IPCC’s Climate Models do a Terrible Job of Simulating East Pacific, “North Atlantic Plus”, and South Atlantic-Indian-West Pacific Sea Surface Temperatures

5.8 The IPCC’s Climate Models Appear to Warm in Response to Absolute Surface Temperatures and Not Natural Processes

5.9 The Long-Term Impacts of Major ENSO Events on Lower Troposphere Temperature Anomalies

5.10 The Long-Term Impacts of Major ENSO Events on Global Land-Plus-Sea Surface Temperature Anomalies

5.11 A Look at the Impacts of ENSO and Other Natural Factors on Ocean Heat Content Data

5.12 Does Downward Longwave (Infrared) Radiation from Anthropogenic Greenhouse Gases do Anything More Than Increase Evaporation?

Section 6 –Common ENSO Myths

6.1 ENSO is an Oscillation and as Such Cannot Contribute to the Long-Term Trend

6.2 A New One: El Niño and La Niña Balance Out to Zero over the Long-Term

6.3 Similar to the Above, The Effects of La Niña Events Counteract those of El Niño Events

6.4 ENSO Only Adds Noise to the Instrument Temperature Record and We Can Remove its Effects through Linear Regression Analysis

6.5 The Frequency and Strength of El Niño and La Niña Events are Dictated by the Pacific Decadal Oscillation

Section 7 – Closing

I’m hoping to have it done within a month. But it may take longer if I continue to add to it.


The Reynolds Optimally Interpolated Sea Surface Temperature Data (OISST) are available through the NOAA National Operational Model Archive & Distribution System (NOMADS).

About Bob Tisdale

Research interest: the long-term aftereffects of El Niño and La Nina events on global sea surface temperature and ocean heat content. Author of the ebook Who Turned on the Heat? and regular contributor at WattsUpWithThat.
This entry was posted in El Nino-La Nina Processes, SST Update. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to How Does the Evolution of the 2012/13 El Niño Stack Up Against the Others since 1982?

  1. George says:

    I think we are likely to go back to ENSO neutral. I believe I am seeing an oddity in the trade wind pattern where there is a strong wind anomaly north of the usual NINO3.4 area blowing to the west. The east/west anomaly in the 3.4 zone is basically neutral but with a pretty strong north/south anomaly. What it appears that we are seeing is strong winds blowing surface water west from the coast of Mexico rather than from the coast of South America, almost as if the trade winds have shifted North out of the usual NINO3.4 area. This image shows it more clearly:

    Also this:

    In an El Nino situation we should be seeing a significant East anomaly (slack or reversed trades), but we aren’t seeing it. The east/west component of the trades appears to be “average”. So far everything I would see would indicate ENSO neutral expectations but I am not privy to any longer range trade wind forecasts.

  2. Don B says:

    Although it may be outside the scope of your book, a discussion of ENSO and weather might be interesting. For example, eastern Australia is sensitive, with strong SOI related to flooding rain; in the words of Dorothea Mackellar, Australia is a land “Of droughts and flooding rains.”

  3. Kristian says:

    Hi, Bob. I’ve been reading your blog posts and updates with great interest for a couple of years now and am really looking forward to your new book.

    Glancing through the different chapter headlines, though, I stopped at #5.12: “Does Downward Longwave (Infrared) Radiation from Anthropogenic Greenhouse Gases do Anything More Than Increase Evaporation?” I wonder, how do you picture this effect? In your mind, is it direct or indirect? What is your stance on the issue of whether or not so-called ‘back radiation’ from the (cooler) atmosphere can do any thermodynamic work on the (warmer) surface at all? In my opinion it cannot. It can only reduce the rate of (radiative) heat loss from the surface. Hence, it can never warm the surface, nor can it provoke increased evaporation – directly, that is. What it can do, still in my opinion, is shift the balance slightly between the different modes of heat loss that the (sea) surface has at its disposal. Impeded IR flux from the sea surface would in and by itself lead to an increase in ocean heat content, as long as shortwave down remained constant. To retain its balance with incoming, the ocean would then have to rather increase its rate of evaporation. So, an indirect effect. Is this what you had in mind?

    If not, I’m not sure it’s wise to concede the AGW claim that IR from the atmosphere would be able to do any direct thermodynamic work on the surface, when there’s no need to. If you give’em an inch …!

    Take a look, for instance, at what Alan Siddons has to say about ‘back radiation’:
    (Sorry, how do you activate a link here?)


  4. Bob Tisdale says:

    George: During the satellite era, I don’t believe that NINO3.4 sea surface temperature anomalies have gone a full-fledged La Niña into El Niño conditions, and then back into ENSO-neutral conditions. I can’t say if it happened before the 1980s, I haven’t looked, but I think it would be a first in the past 30 years. It would be interesting, to says the least, if it happened.

    Starting from ENSO neutral, the 1991/92 El Niño reached 1 deg C early in the year, and then dropped back into ENSO neutral before swinging back up again into a relatively strong El Niño.

  5. Bob Tisdale says:

    Don B: I discuss the effect of ENSO on the jet streams, and through the changes in the jet streams, the local effects on weather. That’s in chapter 4.14. And thanks for the link to the post about Neville Nicholls’s QNA at Roger Pielke Jr’s website. I believe I have a place for a link to it in the book. If not, I’ll create one.

  6. Bob Tisdale says:

    Kristian: I had planned to present the AGW arguments for the effect, but then discuss how the sea surface temperature and ocean heat content records don’t support it, that the warming can be explained with natural variables.

  7. Neville. says:

    Bob there is a new post at the Marohasy site about AGW not causing increasing ocean warming.
    Luke has stated that ocean warming at depth is caused by AGW. Just thought you should know that he claims the science proves it’s AGW.
    Jennifer has been quoting the Stevenson paper stating it’s not due to AGW. Luke claims measurements prove he’s wrong and out of date. He quotes Real climate etc.

  8. Bob Tisdale says:

    Neville: I’ll respond to Luke at Jennifer’s tomorrow.


  9. Pingback: Guilyardi et al (2009) “Understanding El Niño in Ocean-Atmosphere General Circulation Models: progress and challenges” | Bob Tisdale – Climate Observations

  10. Pingback: Tisdale on the problems with ENSO models | Watts Up With That?

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