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Modiki El Niños and Atlantic hurricane activity

By: Dr. Jeff Masters, 1:48 PM GMT on July 08, 2009

It's an El Niño year, which typically means that Atlantic hurricane activity will be reduced. But not all El Niño events are created equal when it comes to their impact on Atlantic hurricane activity. Over the past 150 years, hurricane damage has averaged $800 million/year in El Niño years and double that during La Niña years. The abnormal warming of the equatorial Eastern Pacific ocean waters in most El Niño events creates an atmospheric circulation pattern that brings strong upper-level winds over the Atlantic, creating high wind shear conditions unfavorable for hurricanes. Yet some El Niño years, like 2004, don't fit this pattern. Residents of Florida and the Gulf Coast will not soon forget the four major hurricanes that pounded them in 2004--Ivan, Frances, Jeanne, and Charley. Overall, the 15 named storms, 9 hurricanes, and 6 intense hurricanes of the hyperactive hurricane season of 2004 killed over 3000 people--mostly in Haiti, thanks to Hurricane Jeanne--and did $40 billion in damage.

A new paper published in Science last Friday attempts to explain why some El Niño years see high Atlantic hurricane activity. "Impact of Shifting Patterns of Pacific Ocean Warming on North Atlantic Tropical Cyclones", by Georgia Tech researchers Hye-Mi Kim, Peter Webster, and Judith Curry, theorizes that Atlantic hurricane activity is sensitive to exactly where in the Pacific Ocean El Niño warming occurs. If the warming occurs primarily in the Eastern Pacific, near the coast of South America, the resulting atmospheric circulation pattern creates very high wind shear over the tropical Atlantic, resulting in fewer hurricanes. This pattern, called the Eastern Pacific Warming (EPW) pattern, occurred most recently during the El Niño years of 1997, 1987, and 1982 (Figure 1). In contrast, more warming occurred in the Central Pacific during the El Niño years of 2004, 2002, 1994, and 1991. The scientists showed that these Central Pacific Warming (CPW) years had lower wind shear over the Atlantic, and thus featured higher hurricane activity than is typical for an El Niño year. One of the paper's authors, Professor Peter J. Webster, said the variant Central Pacific Warming (CPW) El Niño pattern was discovered in the 1980s by Japanese and Korean researchers, who dubbed it modiki El Niño. Modiki is the Japanese word for "similar, but different".

Figure 1. Difference of Sea Surface Temperature (SST) from average during the peak of hurricane season, August-September-October, for seven years that had El Niño events (except for 2009, when the SST anomaly for July 1 - 3 is plotted). On the left side are years when the El Niño warming primarily occurred in the Eastern Pacific (EPW years). On the right are years when the warming primarily occurred in the Central Pacific (CPW years). Shown on the top of each plot is the number of named storms (NS), hurricanes (H), and intense hurricanes (IH) that occurred in the Atlantic each year. Atlantic hurricane activity tends to be more prevalent in CPW years than EPW years. An average hurricane season has 10 named storms, 6 hurricanes, and 2 intense hurricanes. Image credit: NOAA/ESRL.

What, then, can we expect the current developing El Niño event to do to 2009 hurricane activity? Kim et al. note that in recent decades, the incidence of modiki CPW El Niño years has been increasing, relative to EPW years. However, the preliminary pattern of SST anomalies in the Pacific observed so far in July (lower left image in Figure 1) shows an EPW pattern--more warming in the Eastern Pacific than the Central Pacific. If Kim et al.'s theory holds true, this EPW pattern should lead to an Atlantic hurricane season with activity lower than the average 10 named storms, 6 hurricanes, and 2 intense hurricanes. There is still a possibility that the observed warming pattern could shift to the Central Pacific during the peak portion of hurricane season, however. We are still in the early stages of this El Niño, and it is unclear how it will evolve.

Jeff Masters

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.