Multivariate ENSO Index (MEI)

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of NOAA.


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Outline for MEI webpage (updated on August 5th, 2014)

This webpage consists of seven main parts:

1. A short description of the Multivariate ENSO Index (MEI);

2. Historic La Niña events since 1950;

3. Historic El Niño events since 1950;

4. MEI loading maps for the latest season;

5. MEI anomaly maps for the latest season;

6. Discussion of recent conditions;

7. Publications and MEI data access.

El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is the most important coupled ocean-atmosphere phenomenon to cause global climate variability on interannual time scales. Here we attempt to monitor ENSO by basing the Multivariate ENSO Index (MEI) on the six main observed variables over the tropical Pacific. These six variables are: sea-level pressure (P), zonal (U) and meridional (V) components of the surface wind, sea surface temperature (S), surface air temperature (A), and total cloudiness fraction of the sky (C). These observations have been collected and published in ICOADS for many years. The MEI is computed separately for each of twelve sliding bi-monthly seasons (Dec/Jan, Jan/Feb,..., Nov/Dec). After spatially filtering the individual fields into clusters (Wolter, 1987), the MEI is calculated as the first unrotated Principal Component (PC) of all six observed fields combined. This is accomplished by normalizing the total variance of each field first, and then performing the extraction of the first PC on the co-variance matrix of the combined fields (Wolter and Timlin, 1993). In order to keep the MEI comparable, all seasonal values are standardized with respect to each season and to the 1950-93 reference period.

IMPORTANT CHANGE: The MEI used to be updated every month during the first week of the following month based on near-real time marine ship and buoy observations (courtesy of Diane Stokes at NCEP). However, this product has been discontinued as of March 2011 (ICOADS-compatible 2-degree monthly statistics). Instead, the MEI is now being updated using ICOADS throughout its record. The main change from the previous MEI is the replacement of 'standard' trimming limits with 'enhanced' trimming limits for the period from 1994 through the current update. This leads to slightly higher MEI values for recent El Niño events (especially 1997-98 where the increase reaches up to 0.235 standard deviations), and slightly lower values for La Niña events (up to -.173 during 1995-96). The differences between old and new MEI are biggest in the 1990s when the fraction of time-delayed ship data that did not enter the real-time data bank was higher than in more recent years. Nevertheless, the linear correlation between old and new MEI for 1994 through 2010 is +0.998, confirming the robustness and stability of the MEI vis-a-vis input data changes. Caution should be exercised when interpreting the MEI on a month-to-month basis, since the MEI has been developed mainly for research purposes. Negative values of the MEI represent the cold ENSO phase, a.k.a.La Niña, while positive MEI values represent the warm ENSO phase (El Niño).

IMPORTANT ADDITION: For those interested in MEI values before 1950, a 'sister' website has now been created that presents a simplified MEI.ext index that extends the MEI record back to 1871, based on Hadley Centre sea-level pressure and sea surface temperatures, but combined in a similar fashion as the current MEI. Our MEI.ext paper that looks at the full 135 year ENSO record between 1871 and 2005 is available online at the International Journal of Climatology (Wolter and Timlin, 2011).


Historic La Niña events since 1950

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How does the 2010-12 La Niña event compare against the six previous biggest La Niña events since 1949? This figure includes only strong events (with at least three bimonthly rankings in the top six), after replacing the slightly weaker 2007-09 event with 2010-12 (rankings are listed here). La Niña events have lasted up to and over three years since 1949, in fact, they do tend to last longer on average than El Niño events. The longest two events included here lasted through most of 1954-56 and 1973-75. The longest event NOT included here occurred in 1999-2001 which reached the 'strong' threshold (top six rankings) just once. Click on the "Discussion" button below to find a comparison of recent ENSO-neutral conditions with similar historic situations.


Historic El Niño events since 1950

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How does the 2009-10 El Niño event compare against the seven previous biggest El Niño events since 1950? This figure includes only strong events (with at least three bimonthly rankings in the top six), with the exception of the 2009-10 event that reached the top six ranking twice. Compared to the previous version of this figure, 1997-98 now reaches very similar peak values to the 1982-83 event, just above the +3.0 sigma threshold. Click on the "Discussion" button below to find a comparison of recent ENSO-neutral conditions with similar historic situations.


MEI loading maps for the latest season

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The six loading fields show the correlations between the local anomalies and the MEI time series. Land areas as well as the Atlantic are excluded and flagged in green, while typically noisy regions with no coherent structures and/or lack of data are shown in grey. Each field is denoted by a single capitalized letter and the explained variance for the same field in the Australian corner.

The sea level pressure (P) loadings show the familiar signature of the Southern Oscillation: high pressure anomalies in the west and low pressure anomalies in the east correspond to positive MEI values, or El Niño-like conditions. Consistent with P, U has positive loadings centered along the Equator, corresponding to westerly anomalies near the dateline. Negative loadings south of Mexico indicate easterly anomalies during El Niño at this time of year. The meridional wind field (V) features negative loadings north of the Equator across the eastern Pacific basin, denoting the southward shift of the ITCZ so common during El Niño conditions, juxtaposed with large positive loadings northeast of Australia (southerly anomalies during El Niño).

Both sea (S) and air (A) surface temperature fields exhibit the typical ENSO signature of a wedge of positive loadings stretching from the Central and South American coast to just east of the dateline, or warm anomalies during an El Niño event. At the same time, total cloudiness (C) tends to be increased over the central and western equatorial Pacific (mainly east of Indonesia), while the easternmost Pacific is often less cloudy than normal east of Galapagos.

The MEI now just stands for almost 20% of the explained variance of all six fields in the tropical Pacific from 30N to 30S, one month after its annual minimum of importance. For comparison, this value is more than 3% less than the one registered in the late 1990s, attesting to an overall weakening of ENSO variability in the last one and half decades. The loading patterns shown here resemble the seasonal composite anomaly fields of Year 0 in a href="#ref_rc">Rasmusson and Carpenter (1982).


MEI anomaly maps for the latest season

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With the overall MEI indicating continued weak El Niño conditions, one can find quite a few key anomalies in the MEI component fields that exceed or equal one standard deviation, or one sigma (compare to loadings figure). Every one of these is flagging El Niño conditions.

Significant positive anomalies (coinciding with high positive loadings) indicate unusually high sea level pressure (P) northwest of Australia, enhanced southerlies (V) northeast of Australia, high sea surface (S) and air (A) temperatures in the eastern equatorial Pacific basin, and enhanced cloudiness (C) northeast of New Guinea. Significant negative anomalies (coinciding with high negative loadings) flag northerly wind anomalies (V) south of Mexico, and reduced cloudiness (C) northeast of Galapagos. Again, all of these anomalies are consistent with El Niño. Only the zonal wind field (U) is short of any significant ENSO-anomalies in this update.

Go to the discussion below for more information on the current situation.

If you prefer to look at anomaly maps without the clustering filter, check out the climate products in our map room.


Discussion and comparison of recent conditions with historic ENSO-neutral conditions

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In the context of ENSO-neutral conditions from August-September 2013 through last boreal winter, this section features a comparison figure with persistent ENSO-neutral conditions for at least six bimonthly MEI values and ending in close proximity to the ranking of January-February 2014 MEI. Longer-lived neutral conditions (such as 1959-61) could only enter once into this comparison figure.

The updated (June-July) MEI has dropped slightly to +0.82. Its current ranking remained steady at the 15th highest value for this time of year, in weak El Niño territory. The long anticipated emeregence of El Niño conditions in 2014 is still under way, leading to the next question of how big it will get. Of the 16 nearest-ranked June-July values, nine had come up by at least four ranks over the previous three months (2014 has come by 16 ranks). In turn, seven of these nine cases (1951, '57, '76, '91, '94, '06, and '09) kept El Niño conditions going through at least September-October of the same year, while one of them struggled through the remainder of 2004, and one dropped back to neutral (2012). Only two events unambiguously reached strong levels ('57, '91), while the other five could be classified as either weak ('51, '76), moderate ('06), or moderate-to-occasionally strong ('94, '09). So, a strong event is still possible, but not likely, while a crash similar to 2012 would be very unusual.

Positive SST anomalies cover much of the central and eastern equatorial Pacific, as seen in the latest weekly SST map. However, weak negative anomalies have reemerged near 120W, indicating weakened El Niño conditions from an SST-only perspective. Negative SST anomalies are also still found near 20S off the coast of South America.

For an alternate interpretation of the current situation, I recommend reading the NOAA ENSO Advisory which represents the official and most recent Climate Prediction Center opinion on this subject. In its latest update (July 10th, 2014), ENSO-neutral conditions were diagnosed, but were expected to transition to El Niño by the end of northern summer, at 70% odds or higher. Differences in opinion are due to their requirement that El Niño conditions persist for a long period before acknowledging an event, and the fact that Niño 3.4 SST still has not crossed over their +0.5C anomaly threshold.

There are a number of ENSO indices that are kept up-to-date on the web. Several of these are tracked at the NCEP website that is usually updated around the same time as the MEI, in time for this go-around. In 2013, Niño regions 3 and 3.4 rose from close to -0.5C in January to within +/-0.2C in March and April of that year. While Niño 3 dropped back to -0.5C and even lower from May through August, Niño 3.4 remained less negative (around -0.3C) through this period. During September through December, both indices hovered close to or just under 0C. In early 2014, both indices dropped to around -0.5C for both indices, followed by a steady warm-up from March through June, reaching +0.9C for Niño 3, and just shy of +0.5C for Niño 3.4. In July 2014, both indices dropped by more than 0.2C, still above +0.5C for Niño 3, but only +0.2C for Niño 3.4.

For extended Tahiti-Darwin SOI data back to 1876, and timely monthly updates, check the Australian Bureau of Meteorology website. This index has often been out of sync with other ENSO indices in the last decade, including a jump to +10 (+1 sigma) in April 2010 that was ahead of any other ENSO index in announcing La Niña conditions. In 2013, the SOI varied from slightly negative values early in the year (-4 in February) all the way to +14 in June and back down to -2 in October. It rose back up to +9 in November, consistent with potentially re-emerging La Niña conditions. However, the December value dropped right back to +1, only to be followed by a jump to +12 in January 2014, and back to slightly negative values (-1) in February. This was followed by a further drop to -13 in March 2014, its lowest March value since 1998(!). However, the April and May values went right back up to positive (La Niña) territory. In June and July 2014, it has gone back to (mild) negative values. The SOI remains the noisiest ENSO index that I can think of.

An even longer Tahiti-Darwin SOI (back to 1866) is maintained at the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia website, however with less frequent updates (currently through January 2014). Extended SST-based ENSO data can be found at the University of Washington-JISAO website, which is now more than three years behind in its update (through January 2011).

Stay tuned for the next update by September 6th (or earlier) to see where the MEI will be heading next. El Niño came and went during the summer of 2012, not unlike 1953. I do not believe that this year's version will be quite as short-lived, not least because the PDO has remained positive through at least June in 2014, while it was quite negative back in 2012. Compared to earlier this year, the odds for a strong event have dwindled, with a moderate event remaining the most likely outcome for now.


MEI data access and publications

You can find the numerical values of the MEI timeseries under this link, and historic ranks under this related link.

If you have trouble getting the data, please contact me under (Klaus.Wolter@noaa.gov)

You are welcome to use any of the figures or data from the MEI websites, but proper acknowledgment would be appreciated. Please refer to the (Wolter and Timlin, 1993, 1998) papers below (available online as pdf files), and/or this webpage.

In order to access and compare the MEI.ext against the MEI, go here.


Publications

  • Rasmusson, E.G., and T.H. Carpenter, 1982: Variations in tropical sea surface temperature and surface wind fields associated with the Southern Oscillation/El Niño. Mon. Wea. Rev., 110, 354-384. Available from the AMS.
  • Wolter, K., 1987: The Southern Oscillation in surface circulation and climate over the tropical Atlantic, Eastern Pacific, and Indian Oceans as captured by cluster analysis. J. Climate Appl. Meteor., 26, 540-558. Available from the AMS.
  • Wolter, K., and M.S. Timlin, 1993: Monitoring ENSO in COADS with a seasonally adjusted principal component index. Proc. of the 17th Climate Diagnostics Workshop, Norman, OK, NOAA/NMC/CAC, NSSL, Oklahoma Clim. Survey, CIMMS and the School of Meteor., Univ. of Oklahoma, 52-57. Download PDF.
  • Wolter, K., and M. S. Timlin, 1998: Measuring the strength of ENSO events - how does 1997/98 rank? Weather, 53, 315-324. Download PDF.
  • Wolter, K., and M. S. Timlin, 2011: El Niño/Southern Oscillation behaviour since 1871 as diagnosed in an extended multivariate ENSO index (MEI.ext). Intl. J. Climatology, 31, 14pp., in press. Available from Wiley Online Library.


Questions about the MEI and its interpretation should be addressed to:
(Klaus.Wolter@noaa.gov), (303) 497-6340.