The El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is the Earth's most prominent source of interannual climate variability, exerting profound worldwide effects. Despite decades of research, its behaviour continues to challenge scientists. In the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean, the anomalously cool sea surface temperatures (SSTs) found during La Niña events and the warm waters of modest El Niño events both propagate westwards, as in the seasonal cycle. In contrast, SST anomalies propagate eastwards during extreme El Niño events, prominently in the post-1976 period, spurring unusual weather events worldwide with costly consequences. The cause of this propagation asymmetry is currently unknown. Here we trace the cause of the asymmetry to the variations in upper ocean currents in the equatorial Pacific, whereby the westward-flowing currents are enhanced during La Niña events but reversed during extreme El Niño events. Our results highlight that propagation asymmetry is favoured when the westward mean equatorial currents weaken, as is projected to be the case under global warming. By analysing past and future climate simulations of an ensemble of models with more realistic propagation, we find a doubling in the occurrences of El Niño events that feature prominent eastward propagation characteristics in a warmer world. Our analysis thus suggests that more frequent emergence of propagation asymmetry will be an indication of the Earth's warming climate.
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Acknowledgements We acknowledge the World Climate Research Programme’s Working Group on Coupled Modelling and all modelling groups for making the CMIP data available. We thank F. Avila and J. Kajtar for downloading and processing the climate models data sets. A.S., S.M. and M.H.E. are supported by the Australian Research Council. W.C. is supported by the Australian Climate Change Science Programme. S.-I.A. was supported by the National Research Foundation of Korea funded by the Korean government (MEST) (grant number NRF-2009-C1AAA001-2009-0093042). M.J.M. is supported by NOAA. This is PMEL contribution number 3977.
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