Comparing ENSO and PDO
Distinctions Between PDO and ENSO
- Location. The strongest signature of the PDO is in the
North Pacific, instead of the tropical Pacific.
- Duration. PDO phases last much longer – typically
20 to 30 years for a single warm or cool phase – than ENSO events – 6
to 18 months for a single warm (El Niño) or cold (La Niña)
phase. This conclusion is based on 20th century observations and has
been confirmed to a significant degree by historic analysis of Pacific
Northwest (PNW) tree rings (Gedalof et al. 2002)
and geoduck shells (Strom 2003).
- Cause and Predictability. The scientific community is reasonably agreed on the factors contributing to ENSO events, making it possible to provide skilled forecasts of ENSO events several seasons in advance of the event’s onset (for a sample of forecast centers, see Seasonal to Interannual Forecasts). The causes of the PDO, on the other hand, are not understood.
Part of the difficulty in understanding what triggers PDO phase shifts is the persistence of PDO events. Accurate instrumental records for the north Pacific begin around 1900; because of the persistence of the PDO phases, we have seen only two complete PDO cycles in that time, making it difficult to determine the cause for – and therefore the predictability of – the PDO.
Even in the absence of a theoretical understanding, PDO climate information improves season-to-season and year-to-year climate forecasts for North America because of its strong tendency for multi-season and multi-year persistence. Simply assuming persistence of observed PDO-related North Pacific SST anomalies in the fall in any given year provides some skill in predicting PDO-related winter climate anomalies in the PNW region. However, this persistence based forecast will always fail to predict the relatively infrequent switches from one PDO phase to another.
Table of PDO-ENSO Years
Table 1 categorizes past winters according to ENSO and PDO phases since 1900. The table assumes the PDO pattern is truly regime-like, with continuous epochs switching phase in 1925 (from cool to warm phase), 1947 (from warm to cool phase), and 1977 (from cool to warm). Since 1999, the PDO has shifted every few years between cool and warm phase, making it difficult to determine at this time if the 1998 shift was a true shift to a cold phase.
Years are categorized as El Niño or La Niña when temperatures in the Niño 3.4 region of the tropical Pacific average one-half standard deviation, or approximately 0.5°C, above (El Niño) or below (La Niña) mean temperature for three consecutive months. Years that do not exceed the one-half standard deviation threshold are considered ENSO Neutral. The base period used by NOAA for calculating departures from the mean is 1971-2000. For Table 1, we use the base period 1900-99.
The ENSO and PDO states assigned in Table 1 to any given year span the fall of the prior year and the winter of the listed year (e.g., "2004" refers to fall [Oct-Dec] 2003 and winter [Jan-March] 2004). The potential for precipitation and temperature extremes is higher when ENSO and PDO are in the same phase.
|Cool phase (negative) PDO:
1900-1924, 1947-1976, 1999-2002, 2006-May 2009
|Warm phase (positive)
1925-1946, 1977-1998, 2003-2005
1904, 1910, 1911, 1916, 1917, 1918,
1907, 1909, 1913, 1922, 1923, 1927,
1920, 1946, 1947, 1949, 1953, 1962,
1901, 1902, 1908, 1928, 1930, 1935,
| 1912, 1915, 1952, 1954, 1964, 1966,
1969, 1973, 1991, 1995, 2007
|1900, 1903, 1905, 1906, 1914, 1919, 1924, 1926, 1931, 1940, 1941, 1942, 1958, 1970, 1977, 1978, 1980, 1983, 1987, 1988, 1992, 1993, 1998, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2010|