Pacific decadal oscillation

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PDO positive phase global pattern PDO Pattern.png
PDO positive phase global pattern

The Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) is a robust, recurring pattern of ocean-atmosphere climate variability centered over the mid-latitude Pacific basin. The PDO is detected as warm or cool surface waters in the Pacific Ocean, north of 20°N. Over the past century, the amplitude of this climate pattern has varied irregularly at interannual-to-interdecadal time scales (meaning time periods of a few years to as much as time periods of multiple decades). There is evidence of reversals in the prevailing polarity (meaning changes in cool surface waters versus warm surface waters within the region) of the oscillation occurring around 1925, 1947, and 1977; the last two reversals corresponded with dramatic shifts in salmon production regimes in the North Pacific Ocean. This climate pattern also affects coastal sea and continental surface air temperatures from Alaska to California.


During a "warm", or "positive", phase, the west Pacific becomes cooler and part of the eastern ocean warms; during a "cool" or "negative" phase, the opposite pattern occurs. The Pacific Decadal Oscillation was named by Steven R. Hare, who noticed it while studying salmon production pattern results in 1997. [1]

The Pacific Decadal Oscillation index is the leading empirical orthogonal function (EOF) of monthly sea surface temperature anomalies (SST-A) over the North Pacific (poleward of 20°N) after the global average sea surface temperature has been removed. This PDO index is the standardized principal component time series. [2] A PDO 'signal' has been reconstructed as far back as 1661 through tree-ring chronologies in the Baja California area. [3]


Several studies have indicated that the PDO index can be reconstructed as the superimposition of tropical forcing and extra-tropical processes. [4] [5] [6] [7] Thus, unlike ENSO (El Niño Southern Oscillation), the PDO is not a single physical mode of ocean variability, but rather the sum of several processes with different dynamic origins.

At inter-annual time scales the PDO index is reconstructed as the sum of random and ENSO induced variability in the Aleutian low, whereas on decadal timescales ENSO teleconnections, stochastic atmospheric forcing and changes in the North Pacific oceanic gyre circulation contribute approximately equally. Additionally sea surface temperature anomalies have some winter to winter persistence due to the reemergence mechanism.

ENSO teleconnections, the atmospheric bridge [8]
The atmospheric bridge during El Nino. Atmospheric bridge.png
The atmospheric bridge during El Niño.

ENSO can influence the global circulation pattern thousands of kilometers away from the equatorial Pacific through the "atmospheric bridge". During El Nino events, deep convection and heat transfer to the troposphere is enhanced over the anomalously warm sea surface temperature, this ENSO-related tropical forcing generates Rossby waves that propagate poleward and eastward and are subsequently refracted back from the pole to the tropics. The planetary waves form at preferred locations both in the North and South Pacific Ocean, and the teleconnection pattern is established within 2–6 weeks. [9] ENSO driven patterns modify surface temperature, humidity, wind, and the distribution of clouds over the North Pacific that alter surface heat, momentum, and freshwater fluxes and thus induce sea surface temperature, salinity, and mixed layer depth (MLD) anomalies.

The atmospheric bridge is more effective during boreal winter when the deepened Aleutian low results in stronger and cold northwesterly winds over the central Pacific and warm/humid southerly winds along the North American west coast, the associated changes in the surface heat fluxes and to a lesser extent Ekman transport creates negative sea surface temperature anomalies and a deepened MLD in the central pacific and warm the ocean from the Hawaii to the Bering Sea.

SST reemergence [10]
Sst reemergence.png
Reemergence mechanism in the North Pacific.
Mixed layer depth seasonal cycle.png
Mixed layer depth seasonal cycle.

Midlatitude SST anomaly patterns tend to recur from one winter to the next but not during the intervening summer, this process occurs because of the strong mixed layer seasonal cycle. The mixed layer depth over the North Pacific is deeper, typically 100-200m, in winter than it is in summer and thus SST anomalies that form during winter and extend to the base of the mixed layer are sequestered beneath the shallow summer mixed layer when it reforms in late spring and are effectively insulated from the air-sea heat flux. When the mixed layer deepens again in the following autumn/early winter the anomalies may again influence the surface. This process has been named "reemergence mechanism" by Alexander and Deser [11] and is observed over much of the North Pacific Ocean although it is more effective in the west where the winter mixed layer is deeper and the seasonal cycle greater.

Stochastic atmospheric forcing [12]

Long term sea surface temperature variation may be induced by random atmospheric forcings that are integrated and reddened into the ocean mixed layer. The stochastic climate model paradigm was proposed by Frankignoul and Hasselmann, [13] in this model a stochastic forcing represented by the passage of storms alter the ocean mixed layer temperature via surface energy fluxes and Ekman currents and the system is damped due to the enhanced (reduced) heat loss to the atmosphere over the anomalously warm (cold) SST via turbulent energy and longwave radiative fluxes, in the simple case of a linear negative feedback the model can be written as the separable ordinary differential equation:

where v is the random atmospheric forcing, λ is the damping rate (positive and constant) and y is the response.

The variance spectrum of y is:

where F is the variance of the white noise forcing and w is the frequency, an implication of this equation is that at short time scales (w>>λ) the variance of the ocean temperature increase with the square of the period while at longer timescales(w<<λ, ~150 months) the damping process dominates and limits sea surface temperature anomalies so that the spectra became white.

Thus an atmospheric white noise generates SST anomalies at much longer timescales but without spectral peaks. Modeling studies suggest that this process contribute to as much as 1/3 of the PDO variability at decadal timescales.

Ocean dynamics

Several dynamic oceanic mechanisms and SST-air feedback may contribute to the observed decadal variability in the North Pacific Ocean. SST variability is stronger in the Kuroshio Oyashio extension (KOE) region and is associated with changes in the KOE axis and strength, [7] that generates decadal and longer time scales SST variance but without the observed magnitude of the spectral peak at ~10 years, and SST-air feedback. Remote reemergence occurs in regions of strong current such as the Kuroshio extension and the anomalies created near the Japan may reemerge the next winter in the central pacific.

Advective resonance

Saravanan and McWilliams [14] have demonstrated that the interaction between spatially coherent atmospheric forcing patterns and an advective ocean shows periodicities at preferred time scales when non-local advective effects dominate over the local sea surface temperature damping. This "advective resonance" mechanism may generate decadal SST variability in the Eastern North Pacific associated with the anomalous Ekman advection and surface heat flux. [15]

North Pacific oceanic gyre circulation

Dynamic gyre adjustments are essential to generate decadal SST peaks in the North Pacific, the process occurs via westward propagating oceanic Rossby waves that are forced by wind anomalies in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean. The quasi-geostrophic equation for long non-dispersive Rossby Waves forced by large scale wind stress can be written as the linear partial differential equation: [16]

where h is the upper-layer thickness anomaly, τ is the wind stress, c is the Rossby wave speed that depends on latitude, ρ0 is the density of sea water and f0 is the Coriolis parameter at a reference latitude. The response time scale is set by the Rossby waves speed, the location of the wind forcing and the basin width, at the latitude of the Kuroshio Extension c is 2.5 cm s−1 and the dynamic gyre adjustment timescale is ~(5)10 years if the Rossby wave was initiated in the (central)eastern Pacific Ocean.

If the wind white forcing is zonally uniform it should generate a red spectrum in which h variance increases with the period and reaches a constant amplitude at lower frequencies without decadal and interdecadal peaks, however low frequencies atmospheric circulation tends to be dominated by fixed spatial patterns so that wind forcing is not zonally uniform, if the wind forcing is zonally sinusoidal then decadal peaks occurs due to resonance of the forced basin-scale Rossby waves.

The propagation of h anomalies in the western pacific changes the KOE axis and strength [7] and impact SST due to the anomalous geostrophic heat transport. Recent studies [7] [17] suggest that Rossby waves excited by the Aleutian low propagate the PDO signal from the North Pacific to the KOE through changes in the KOE axis while Rossby waves associated with the NPO propagate the North Pacific Gyre oscillation signal through changes in the KOE strength.


Temperature and precipitation

PDO Temperature.png
PDO DJFM temperature pattern.
PDO Precipitation.png
PDO DJFM precipitation pattern.

The PDO spatial pattern and impacts are similar to those associated with ENSO events. During the positive phase the wintertime Aleutian low is deepened and shifted southward, warm/humid air is advected along the North American west coast and temperatures are higher than usual from the Pacific Northwest to Alaska but below normal in Mexico and the Southeastern United States. [18]
Winter precipitation is higher than usual in the Alaska Coast Range, Mexico and the Southwestern United States but reduced over Canada, Eastern Siberia and Australia [18] [19]
McCabe et al. [20] showed that the PDO along with the AMO strongly influence multidecadal droughts pattern in the United States, drought frequency is enhanced over much of the Northern United States during the positive PDO phase and over the Southwest United States during the negative PDO phase in both cases if the PDO is associated with a positive AMO.
The Asian Monsoon is also affected, increased rainfall and decreased summer temperature is observed over the Indian subcontinent during the negative phase. [21]

PDO IndicatorsPDO positive phasePDO negative phase
Pacific Northwest, British Columbia, and AlaskaAbove averageBelow average
Mexico to South-East USBelow averageAbove average
Alaska coastal rangeAbove averageBelow average
Mexico to South-Western USAbove averageBelow average
Canada, Eastern Siberia and AustraliaBelow averageAbove average
India summer monsoonBelow averageAbove average

Reconstructions and regime shifts

Observed monthly values for the PDO (1900–sep2019, dots) and 10-year averages.
Reconstructed PDO Index (993-1996).

The PDO index has been reconstructed using tree rings and other hydrologically sensitive proxies from west North America and Asia. [3] [22] [23]

MacDonald and Case [24] reconstructed the PDO back to 993 using tree rings from California and Alberta. The index shows a 50–70 year periodicity but is a strong mode of variability only after 1800, a persistent negative phase occurring during medieval times (993–1300) which is consistent with La Niña conditions reconstructed in the tropical Pacific [25] and multi-century droughts in the South-West United States. [26]

Several regime shifts are apparent both in the reconstructions and instrumental data, during the 20th century regime shifts associated with concurrent changes in SST, SLP, land precipitation and ocean cloud cover occurred in 1924/1925, 1945/1946, and 1976/1977: [27]


The NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory produces official ENSO forecasts, and Experimental statistical forecasts using a linear inverse modeling (LIM) method [34] [35] to predict the PDO, LIM assumes that the PDO can be separated into a linear deterministic component and a non-linear component represented by random fluctuations.

Much of the LIM PDO predictability arises from ENSO and the global trend rather than extra-tropical processes and is thus limited to ~4 seasons. The prediction is consistent with the seasonal footprinting mechanism [36] in which an optimal SST structure evolves into the ENSO mature phase 6–10 months later that subsequently impacts the North Pacific Ocean SST via the atmospheric bridge.

Skills in predicting decadal PDO variability could arise from taking into account the impact of the externally forced [37] and internally generated [38] Pacific variability.

See also

Related Research Articles

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El Niño is the warm phase of the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and is associated with a band of warm ocean water that develops in the central and east-central equatorial Pacific, including the area off the Pacific coast of South America. The ENSO is the cycle of warm and cold sea surface temperature (SST) of the tropical central and eastern Pacific Ocean. El Niño is accompanied by high air pressure in the western Pacific and low air pressure in the eastern Pacific. El Niño phases are known to occur close to four years, however, records demonstrate that the cycles have lasted between two and seven years. During the development of El Niño, rainfall develops between September–November. The cool phase of ENSO is La Niña, with SSTs in the eastern Pacific below average, and air pressure high in the eastern Pacific and low in the western Pacific. The ENSO cycle, including both El Niño and La Niña, causes global changes in temperature and rainfall.

Satellite temperature measurements

Satellite temperature measurements are inferences of the temperature of the atmosphere at various altitudes as well as sea and land surface temperatures obtained from radiometric measurements by satellites. These measurements can be used to locate weather fronts, monitor the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, determine the strength of tropical cyclones, study urban heat islands and monitor the global climate. Wildfires, volcanos, and industrial hot spots can also be found via thermal imaging from weather satellites.

Climate variability and change Change in the statistical distribution of weather patterns for an extended period

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La Niña A coupled ocean-atmosphere phenomenon that is the counterpart of El Niño

La Niña is a coupled ocean-atmosphere phenomenon that is the colder counterpart of El Niño, as part of the broader El Niño–Southern Oscillation climate pattern. The name La Niña originates from Spanish, meaning "the little girl", analogous to El Niño meaning "the little boy". It has also in the past been called anti-El Niño, and El Viejo. During a period of La Niña, the sea surface temperature across the equatorial Eastern Central Pacific Ocean will be lower than normal by 3 to 5 °C. An appearance of La Niña persists for at least five months. It has extensive effects on the weather across the globe, particularly in North America, even affecting the Atlantic and Pacific hurricane seasons, in which more tropical cyclones in the Atlantic basin due to low wind shear and warmer sea surface temperatures, while reducing tropical cyclogenesis in the Pacific Ocean during a La Niña.

El Niño–Southern Oscillation Irregularly periodic variation in winds and sea surface temperatures over the tropical eastern Pacific Ocean

El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is an irregularly periodic variation in winds and sea surface temperatures over the tropical eastern Pacific Ocean, affecting the climate of much of the tropics and subtropics. The warming phase of the sea temperature is known as El Niño and the cooling phase as La Niña. The Southern Oscillation is the accompanying atmospheric component, coupled with the sea temperature change: El Niño is accompanied by high air surface pressure in the tropical western Pacific and La Niña with low air surface pressure there. The two periods last several months each and typically occur every few years with varying intensity per period.

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Madden–Julian oscillation

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Mixed layer A layer in which active turbulence has homogenized some range of depths.

The oceanic or limnological mixed layer is a layer in which active turbulence has homogenized some range of depths. The surface mixed layer is a layer where this turbulence is generated by winds, surface heat fluxes, or processes such as evaporation or sea ice formation which result in an increase in salinity. The atmospheric mixed layer is a zone having nearly constant potential temperature and specific humidity with height. The depth of the atmospheric mixed layer is known as the mixing height. Turbulence typically plays a role in the formation of fluid mixed layers.

Tropical cyclogenesis

Tropical cyclogenesis is the development and strengthening of a tropical cyclone in the atmosphere. The mechanisms through which tropical cyclogenesis occurs are distinctly different from those through which temperate cyclogenesis occurs. Tropical cyclogenesis involves the development of a warm-core cyclone, due to significant convection in a favorable atmospheric environment.

Azores High

The Azores High also known as North Atlantic (Subtropical) High/Anticyclone or the Bermuda-Azores High, is a large subtropical semi-permanent centre of high atmospheric pressure typically found south of the Azores in the Atlantic Ocean, at the Horse latitudes. It forms one pole of the North Atlantic oscillation, the other being the Icelandic Low. The system influences the weather and climatic patterns of vast areas of North Africa and southern Europe, and to a lesser extent, eastern North America. The aridity of the Sahara Desert and the summer drought of the Mediterranean Basin is due to the large-scale subsidence and sinking motion of air in the system. In its summer position, the high is centered near Bermuda, and creates a southwest flow of warm tropical air toward the East Coast of the United States. In summer, the Azores-Bermuda High is strongest. The central pressure hovers around 1024 mbar (hPa).

Atlantic multidecadal oscillation climate cycle that affects the surface temperature of the North Atlantic

The Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO), also known as Atlantic Multidecadal Variability (AMV), is a climate cycle that affects the sea surface temperature (SST) of the North Atlantic Ocean based on different modes on multidecadal timescales. While there is some support for this mode in models and in historical observations, controversy exists with regard to its amplitude, and in particular, the attribution of sea surface temperature change to natural or anthropogenic causes, especially in tropical Atlantic areas important for hurricane development. The Atlantic multidecadal oscillation is also connected with shifts in hurricane activity, rainfall patterns and intensity, and changes in fish populations.

Indian Ocean Dipole irregular oscillation of sea-surface temperatures in the Indian Ocean

The Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD), also known as the Indian Niño, is an irregular oscillation of sea surface temperatures in which the western Indian Ocean becomes alternately warmer and then colder than the eastern part of the ocean.

Polar amplification

Polar amplification is the phenomenon that any change in the net radiation balance tends to produce a larger change in temperature near the poles than the planetary average. On a planet with an atmosphere that can restrict emission of longwave radiation to space, surface temperatures will be warmer than a simple planetary equilibrium temperature calculation would predict. Where the atmosphere or an extensive ocean is able to transport heat polewards, the poles will be warmer and equatorial regions cooler than their local net radiation balances would predict.  

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The Arctic dipole anomaly is a pressure pattern characterized by high pressure on the arctic regions of North America and low pressure on those of Eurasia. This pattern sometimes replaces the Arctic oscillation and the North Atlantic oscillation. It was observed for the first time in the first decade of 2000s and is perhaps linked to recent climate change. The Arctic dipole lets more southern winds into the Arctic Ocean resulting in more ice melting. The summer 2007 event played an important role in the record low sea ice extent which was recorded in September. The Arctic dipole has also been linked to changes in arctic circulation patterns that cause drier winters in Northern Europe, but much wetter winters in Southern Europe and colder winters in East Asia, Europe and the eastern half of North America.

The Atlantic Equatorial Mode or Atlantic Niño is a quasiperiodic interannual climate pattern of the equatorial Atlantic Ocean. It is the dominant mode of year-to-year variability that results in alternating warming and cooling episodes of sea surface temperatures accompanied by changes in atmospheric circulation. The term Atlantic Niño comes from its close similarity with the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) that dominates the tropical Pacific basin. The Atlantic Niño is not the same as the Atlantic Meridional (Interhemispheric) Mode that consists of a north-south dipole and operates more on decadal timescales. The equatorial warming and cooling events associated with the Atlantic Niño are known to be strongly related to atmospheric climate anomalies, especially in African countries bordering the Gulf of Guinea. Therefore, understanding of the Atlantic Niño has important implications for climate prediction in those regions. Although the Atlantic Niño is an intrinsic mode to the equatorial Atlantic, there may be a tenuous causal relationship between ENSO and the Atlantic Niño in some circumstances.

The Tropical Atlantic SST Dipole refers to a cross-equatorial sea surface temperature (SST) pattern that appears dominant on decadal timescales. It has a period of about 12 years, with the SST anomalies manifesting their most pronounced features around 10–15 degrees of latitude off of the Equator. The term Tropical Atlantic SST dipole is only one of the characteristic names used to refer to this mode of variability; other definitions include the interhemispheric SST gradient or the Meridional Atlantic mode. This decadal-scale SST pattern constitutes one of the key features of SST variability in the Tropical Atlantic Ocean, with another one being the Atlantic Equatorial Mode or Atlantic Niño, which occurs in the zonal (east-west) direction at interannual timescales, with sea surface temperature and heat content anomalies being observed in the eastern equatorial basin. Its importance in climate dynamics and decadal-scale climate prediction is evident when investigating its impact on adjacent continental regions such as the Northeast Brazil, the Sahel as well as its influence on North Atlantic cyclogenesis.

The Tropical Atlantic Variability (TAV) is influenced by internal interaction and external effects. TAV can be discussed in different time scales: seasonal and interannual.

Westerly wind burst

A westerly wind burst is a phenomenon commonly associated with El Niño events, whereby the typical east-to-west trade winds across the equatorial Pacific shift to west-to-east. A westerly wind burst is defined by Harrison and Vecchi (1997) as sustained winds of 25 km/h (16 mph) over a period of 5–20 days. However, no concrete definition has been determined, with Tziperman and Yu (2007) defining them as having winds of 14 km/h (8.7 mph) and lasting "at least a few days". On average, three of these events take place each year, but are significantly more common during El Niño years. They have been linked to various mesoscale phenomena, including tropical cyclones, mid-latitude cold surges, and the Madden–Julian oscillation. Their connection with Kelvin waves also indicate a connection with the onset of El Niño events, with every major occurrence since the 1950s featuring a westerly wind burst upon their onset.


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