The 2014/15 El Niño – Part 19 – Is an El Niño Already Taking Place?

The recent post at WattsUpWithThat Yes Virginia (and everyone else) there is an El Niño coming was written by Joe Bastardi of WeatherBell Analytics.  As a result of that article, Joe and I exchanged a good number of emails.  Once again, Joe Bastardi was more than willing to teach from the perspective of a professional meteorologist.  Joe took the time on a Sunday afternoon during (U.S.) football season to discuss El Niños and forecasting with me.  Thanks, Joe.

The 2014/15 El Niño has to be one for the record books.  It has probably been one of the most-observed and most-studied weak El Niño events ever.   It started early in the year with a large Kelvin wave (discussed in the first post of this series).  Alarmists around the globe began predicting all sorts of mayhem… to be brought on by what they assumed would be a “super” El Niño…which, in turn, they claimed was caused by, and made worse by, human-induced global warming. Contrary to all the prognostications of gloom and doom, the El Niño fizzled into weak El Niño conditions during the boreal spring and summer, destroying all of the alarmists’ hopes and making some persons look exceedingly foolish… exceedingly foolish.

But one of the “constants” throughout the year has been Joe Bastardi’s forecasts that this El Niño would not be a strong event—that the El Niño would reach only weak to moderate levels.

You may, at this time, be saying to yourself, What El Niño? The El Niño hasn’t developed yet.

It depends on how we’re defining an El Niño—which index we’re referencing. That’s the topic of this post.

Now, this discussion would not be taking place if a super El Niño had developed.  But that never materialized.

You may also be thinking, If it’s not a super El Niño, why do we care?

The tropical Pacific influences weather around the globe, regardless of whether the sea surface temperatures for a specific region are above or below El Niño and La Niña thresholds. In addition to the numerous other factors that dictate your regional weather, meteorologists have to rely on many indicators from the tropical Pacific when preparing their seasonal forecasts, not just the sea surface temperatures of a specific region along the equator.

I learned a good number of things from Joe Bastardi during that email exchange, but on the topic of El Niño, one of points he stressed was, I was limiting my definition of an El Niño to the one based on the sea surface temperatures of the NINO3.4 region—the classic NOAA definition.  NOAA uses the sea surface temperatures of the NINO3.4 region of the equatorial Pacific for their Oceanic NINO Index (ONI) and for their classifications of “official” El Niños and La Niñas.

NOAA defines El Niño conditions as sea surface temperature anomalies of the NINO3.4 region equal to or higher than +0.5 deg C.  And as of last week, the week centered on Wednesday, October 22, sea surface temperature anomalies were once again back at the threshold of El Niño conditions.  Let’s expand on that.

This year, NINO3.4 sea surface temperature anomalies barely squeaked into weak El Niño conditions during the boreal summer, then dropped back toward zero, but have returned once again to the threshold of El Niño conditions…according to the weekly data.  Whether the sea surface temperatures there remain at or above that threshold long enough for NOAA to classify this year’s event as an “official” El Nino has yet to be seen. (And that was how I was limiting my view of an El Niño.)


Figure 1 is a map of the average sea surface temperature anomalies of the tropical Pacific for May through September 2014.  Highlighted on the map are the four NINO regions.   More than a decade ago the NINO3.4 region was selected for use as the primary NINO index.  In the 1997 paper The Definition of El Niño, Trenberth notes:

Mean temperatures are higher in the Niño 3.4 region than in Niño 3 and its proximity to the Pacific warm pool and main centers of convection is the reason for the physical importance of Niño 3.4.

Figure 1

Figure 1

This year, from May to September, the equatorial Pacific has warmed east and west of the NINO3.4 region, as shown in Figure 1.  To expand on that:

The equatorial Pacific stretches almost halfway around the globe. NINO regions occupy the central and eastern portions. And while the weekly sea surface temperatures of the NINO3.4 region have occasionally reached El Niño conditions this year (just barely), the monthly values have not. See Figure 2. But the sea surface temperature anomalies for the entire central and eastern equatorial Pacific (5S-5N, 160E-80W) have been at or above +0.5 deg C since May 2014, with most of the warming taking place in the far eastern equatorial Pacific.

Figure 2

Figure 2

For some reason, the NINO3.4 region hasn’t been cooperating, but east and west of it, the equatorial Pacific has been in El Niño conditions for a good number of months, with the sea surface temperatures in the NINO1+2 region continuing to remain elevated and with the NINO3 and NINO4 regions cycling into El Niño conditions, back out and back in.  See Figure 3.  In fact, the NINO3 region reached the +1.0 deg C threshold of a moderate El Niño for a couple of weeks.

Figure 3

Figure 3

NOAA focuses in the NINO3.4 region with its Oceanic NINO Index, so many people, like me, also focus on it.  This year, the (weak) El Niño conditions have been taking place east and west of the NINO3.4 region. Very curious.


As of October 30, 2014, the 90-day Southern Oscillation Index (SOI) value has been within weak El Niño conditions for more than 1 week, where a negative SOI value equal to or more negative than -8.0 is considered El Niño conditions.

Let’s phrase that another way: Based on the average 90-day SOI, weak El Niño conditions have existed in the tropical Pacific for the past 3 months.


The Multivariate ENSO Index (MEI) is another ENSO index published by NOAA.  It was created and is maintained by NOAA’s Klaus Wolter.  The Multivariate ENSO Index uses the sea surface temperatures of the NINO3 region of the equatorial Pacific, along with a slew of atmospheric variables…thus “multivariate”.

According to the most recent Multivariate ENSO Index update discussion (my boldface):

The long anticipated emergence of El Niño conditions in 2014 has been under way since May-June, despite the lack of signal in Niño 3.4 SST…and its sudden drop in the MEI this month.

The MEI had been showing El Niño conditions for the three bimonthly periods (May-June, June-July, and July-August) before dropping out in August-September.


…(big but), keep in mind that El Niño and La Niña rankings according to the MEI aren’t based on fixed threshold values such as +0.5 for El Niño and -0.5 for La Niña.  The MEI El Niño and La Niña rankings are based on percentiles, top 30% for the weak to strong El Niños and the bottom 30% for the weak to strong La Niñas.   This is difficult to track, because, when using the percentile method, the thresholds of El Niño and La Niña conditions vary from one bimonthly period to the next, and they can change from year to year.

As a clarification, looking at the numerical values of the MEI timeseries, the 19th ranked positive MEI for AugSep is 0.526 (through 2014), but for the next three bimonthly periods (through 2013) the 19th ranked positive MEI’s for SepOct is 0.638, for OctNov it’s 0.645 and for NovDec it’s 0.559.   It would be interesting to know why Klaus Wolter uses percentiles instead of fixed thresholds.

I’ll have to add the MEI to my next few monthly El Niño updates.


NOAA’s primary ENSO index (NINO3.4 sea surface temperature anomalies) is not indicating that we’re in weak El Niño conditions.  And, when all is said and done next year, it’s entirely possible that this year’s El Niño won’t be highlighted in red on the Oceanic NINO Index.  But that does not mean weather conditions are not responding to the other factors that contribute to an El Niño, where

  • other factors include those considered by the Southern Oscillation Index and Multivariate ENSO Index, and
  • other factors that are impacted by the sea surface temperatures of the other NINO regions east and west of the NINO3.4 region.

It all boils down to what one uses to define an El Niño and how one uses that information when making a long-term weather forecast…which is where Joe Bastardi excels.


Just a quick animation of the last two months of subsurface temperature anomalies graphics along the equator, from the NOAA GODAS website:  As noted in the last two updates (here and here), there has been a strengthening of the latest downwelling (warm) Kelvin wave.   That warm water should continue to travel east and be drawn to the surface over the next few months.

Animation 1

Animation 1


And for additional introductory discussions of El Niño processes see:

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 2014-15 El Nino Series, ENSO Update. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to The 2014/15 El Niño – Part 19 – Is an El Niño Already Taking Place?

  1. Werner Kohl says:

    Thanks a lot, Bob!
    In every article from you I learn new things.
    I will pin your figure 1 to my desktop backgrounds so I don’t forget where the NINO areas are.
    Your El Niño series is large as a book now having almost 250 pages.

  2. Bob Tisdale says:

    Thanks, Werner. 250 pages? Yikes! Have you converted the posts into pdf format?

  3. Werner Kohl says:

    Yes, I did. 243 pages.

  4. Bob Tisdale says:

    Thank you, Werner. I’m flattered.

  5. Pamela Gray says:

    Me thinks another book is coming soon. Thanks for clarifying Joe’s perspective. It is a valid point. We probably don’t have enough multi-decadal data to crown ENSO 3.4 the King and Queen of an effective El Nino event. Between all the indices of El Nino “signs”, it may very well be that another measure (such as MEI or even one that hasn’t been defined yet) will prove superior in explaining subsequent weather patterns that crop up when westerly wind bursts and Kelvin waves send warm water to the surface in the equatorial pacific.

    Fascinating discussion from both of you. Now if we can just set Joe up with an editor. As a teacher my red pen yearns to climb into the internet whenever Joe puts thoughts to keyboard.

  6. Andrew says:

    Any chance you can get Joe to do a winter forecast for the U.K. 🙂

    The Met Office seem to be predicting a wet/dry warm/cold winter (low confidence) as usual.

    If you could, can you explain why these two charts are so different. Paying most attention to the Northern Hem SST anomalies. Is it just the colour scales that make them look so different or am I missing something obvious?

  7. Bob Tisdale says:

    Andrew, the color-scaling are significantly different between the two maps, with neither having grey or white gaps at low values, say +/- 0.5 deg C, as my maps used to have:

    The Unisys colors are also biased toward blues. Their light blues are actually positive anomalies.

    Note the projection types. Unisys appears to be using a Mercator projection, which exaggerates the mid-to-high latitudes with respect to the tropics. NOAA uses a linear type projection for their maps, not sure which one though.


  8. Andrew says:

    Thanks for that. The Unisys map does look quite dramatic

  9. Thanks, Bob. I have republished the monthly MEI graphic in my pages for a long time, together with the monthly Climate Prediction Center – El Niño Southern Oscillation Diagnostic Discussion.

  10. gymnosperm says:

    Bob, I love that GODAS animation but cant get it to play on my site.
    I don’t see waves going on. Maybe those are really shallow. What I see is hot anomalies emerging at about 180 meters at about the international date line and progressing steadily eastward at an upward inclination over the cold waters of the Humboldt current.

    Why would hot anomalies emerge at 180 meters?

  11. Bob Tisdale says:

    Hi gymnosperm: Sorry you’re having trouble replaying the gif at your website.

    You’re right. These recent Kelvin waves aren’t as distinct at the one from earlier in the year. They’re much weaker. And they don’t appear to have been forced by westerly wind bursts. I explained and illustrated where they appear to have come from in the following two posts.

    Part of the original (strong) Kelvin wave from earlier in the year split off of the equator and headed back to the west. See the “Warm Water Recirculated” post from the series:

    That pocket of warm water later fed back into the Equatorial Undercurrent (Cromwell Current) and has been carried eastward, in another downwelling (warm) Kelvin wave…without the help of a westerly wind burst. See the “An El Niño Mulligan?” post:

    Then, a few weeks later, more of that returned warm water fed into the Cromwell current, and strengthened (perpetuated) the current downwelling Kelvin wave. All without the assistance of westerly wind bursts or any real weakening of the trades in the western equatorial Pacific.

  12. Pamela Gray says:

    Thank you for such clarity. I remember a posted link, either here or at WUWT showing surface and below surface oceanic currents. It was extraordinary. Do you have a link to it? It would be cool to have a three dimensional “movie”.

  13. Ashok Patel says:

    “Let’s phrase that another way: Based on the average 90-day SOI, weak El Niño conditions have existed in the tropical Pacific for the past 3 months.”

    Going by the same logic can we say that: Based on the three monthly season ONI index for 2014 DJF=-0.6, JFM=-06, & FMA=-0.5 , La Nina conditions had existed in the tropical Pacific for more than 5 months being three overlapping 3 monthly seasons ?

  14. Bob Tisdale says:

    Very true, Ashok.

  15. Bob Tisdale says:

    Pamela, there are numerous illustrations on the Google image page for the “equatorial undercurrent”:

    Sorry about that type of answer, but the only other images that I posted that I can think of that came close to matching what you’re discussing were from the post about the NOAA Real Time Multiple Ocean Reanalysis Intercomparison:
    Was that it?

  16. Pingback: The 2014/15 El Niño – November Update – The Little El Niño That Shoulda’-Woulda’-Coulda’ | Bob Tisdale – Climate Observations

  17. Pingback: The 2014/15 El Niño – Part 20 – November Update – The Little El Niño That Shoulda’-Woulda’-Coulda’ | Watts Up With That?

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