In this study, the processes affecting sea surface temperature variability over the 1992–98 period, encompassing the very strong 1997–98 El Niño event, are analyzed. A tropical Pacific Ocean general circulation model, forced by a combination of weekly ERS1–2 and TAO wind stresses, and climatological heat and freshwater fluxes, is first validated against observations. The model reproduces the main features of the tropical Pacific mean state, despite a weaker than observed thermal stratification, a 0.1 m s?1 too strong (weak) South Equatorial Current (North Equatorial Countercurrent), and a slight underestimate of the Equatorial Undercurrent. Good agreement is found between the model dynamic height and TOPEX/Poseidon sea level variability, with correlation/rms differences of 0.80/4.7 cm on average in the 10°N–10°S band. The model sea surface temperature variability is a bit weak, but reproduces the main features of interannual variability during the 1992–98 period. The model compares well with the TAO current variability at the equator, with correlation/rms differences of 0.81/0.23 m s?1 for surface currents. The model therefore reproduces well the observed interannual variability, with wind stress as the only interannually varying forcing.<br/>This good agreement with observations provides confidence in the comprehensive three-dimensional circulation and thermal structure of the model. A close examination of mixed layer heat balance is thus undertaken, contrasting the mean seasonal cycle of the 1993–96 period and the 1997–98 El Niño. In the eastern Pacific, cooling by exchanges with the subsurface (vertical advection, mixing, and entrainment), the atmospheric forcing, and the eddies (mainly the tropical instability waves) are the three main contributors to the heat budget. In the central–western Pacific, the zonal advection by low-frequency currents becomes the main contributor. Westerly wind bursts (in December 1996 and March and June 1997) were found to play a decisive role in the onset of the 1997–98 El Niño. They contributed to the early warming in the eastern Pacific because the downwelling Kelvin waves that they excited diminished subsurface cooling there. But it is mainly through eastward advection of the warm pool that they generated temperature anomalies in the central Pacific. The end of El Niño can be linked to the large-scale easterly anomalies that developed in the western Pacific and spread eastward, from the end of 1997 onward. In the far-western Pacific, because of the shallower than normal thermocline, these easterlies cooled the SST by vertical processes. In the central Pacific, easterlies pushed the warm pool back to the west. In the east, they led to a shallower thermocline, which ultimately allowed subsurface cooling to resume and to quickly cool the surface layer
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