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Modelling El Niño-southern oscillation : the utility of contemporary diagnostic frameworks


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Graham, FS 2015 , 'Modelling El Niño-southern oscillation : the utility of contemporary diagnostic frameworks', PhD thesis, University of Tasmania.

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The development and application of process-based diagnostics is fundamental in improving
our understanding of the simulation of El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO)
behaviours by coupled general circulation models (CGCMs). Several theoretical frameworks
have potential utility as diagnostics; however, their accuracy in describing the dynamics
governing ENSO evolution has not yet been systematically evaluated. This thesis
presents a comprehensive analysis of a number of theoretical frameworks - the unified
oscillator, Bjerknes stability index, and heat budget equation - to assess their representation
of ENSO dynamics and capacity to diagnose ENSO behaviours in CGCMs.
The unified oscillator description of ENSO was first investigated for its accuracy in replicating
the ENSO cycle simulated by flux-forced output from the Australian Community
Climate and Earth System Simulator ocean model (ACCESS-OM). The unified oscillator
equations for anomalous sea surface temperature, thermocline depth, and zonal
wind stress tendencies were unable to capture the structure, amplitude, and period of
the corresponding tendencies in ACCESS-OM. Furthermore, the unified oscillator was
considerably less effective than the simple delayed oscillator model in replicating the
simulated ENSO cycle. It was concluded that the overly simplified formulation of the
unified oscillator limits its power as a diagnostic of ENSO behaviours.
This thesis also evaluated the effectiveness of the Bjerknes stability index in representing
ENSO ocean feedbacks. Output from ACCESS-OM was used to calculate the Bjerknes
stability index feedbacks, which were compared with the corresponding heat budget
equation feedbacks. Due to the assumption of linearity in its derivation and an oversimplification of the relationship between ENSO variables, the Bjerknes stability index
feedbacks correlated poorly with the original heat budget feedbacks. Therefore, the
Bjerknes stability index could not necessarily be relied upon to accurately quantify
ENSO dynamics. It follows that in its current form, and compared with the heat budget
equation, the Bjerknes stability index has limited utility as a diagnostic tool, particularly in the context of intercomparisons between models that are inherently nonlinear.
Finally, the heat budget equation was employed to diagnose the realism of El Niño
evolution simulated by an ACCESS coupled model (ACCESS-CM1.3). The heat budget
equation for the tropical Pacific was calculated in ACCESS-CM1.3 and the ocean
feedbacks benchmarked against the corresponding terms calculated in ACCESS-OM.
Instead of simulating the central Pacific El Niño type, the ACCESS-CM1.3 captured
a double peaked event with warming centres evolving concurrently in the eastern and
western Pacific. The separation between the two peaks arose due to a westward bias
in the dynamic warm pool edge. Coupling biases in ACCESS-CM1.3 also modified the
magnitude, location, and timing of the heat budget dynamics during El Niño evolution
relative to ACCESS-OM. Finally, some double peaked events in ACCESS-CM1.3 were
erroneously categorised as central Pacific El Niños by standard SST metrics.
This thesis highlights the importance of considering multiple diagnostics, including those
that inherently account for spatial and temporal variability such as the tropical Pacific
heat budget equation, when evaluating ENSO behaviours in CGCMs.

Item Type: Thesis - PhD
Authors/Creators:Graham, FS
Keywords: ENSO, model, El Nino, coupled general circulation model
Copyright Holders: The Author
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Copyright 2015 the author

Additional Information:

Chapter 2 appears to be published as an article with the same title in Encyclopedia of Natural Resources Volume 2, pp. 1086, 2014

Chapter 3 appears to be the equivalent of a pre-print article finally published as: Graham, F. S., Brown, J. N., Wittenberg, A. T., & Holbrook, N. J. (2015), Reassessing conceptual models of ENSO, Journal of climate, 28(23), 9121-9142.

Chapter 4 appears to be the equivalent of a post-print of an article finally published as: Graham, F. S., Brown, J.N., Langlais, C., Marsland, S.J., Wittenberg, A.T., Holbrook, N.J., 2014: Effectiveness of the Bjerknes stability index in representing ocean dynamics. Climate Dynamics, 43, 2399-2414, the final publication is available at Springer via

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