Articles | Volume 8, issue 4
Research article
14 Nov 2017
Research article |  | 14 Nov 2017

Atmospheric torques and Earth's rotation: what drove the millisecond-level length-of-day response to the 2015–2016 El Niño?

Sébastien B. Lambert, Steven L. Marcus, and Olivier de Viron

Abstract. El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events are classically associated with a significant increase in the length of day (LOD), with positive mountain torques arising from an east–west pressure dipole in the Pacific driving a rise of atmospheric angular momentum (AAM) and consequent slowing of the Earth's rotation. The large 1982–1983 event produced a lengthening of the day of about 0.9 ms, while a major ENSO event during the 2015–2016 winter season produced an LOD excursion reaching 0.81 ms in January 2016. By evaluating the anomaly in mountain and friction torques, we found that (i) as a mixed eastern–central Pacific event, the 2015–2016 mountain torque was smaller than for the 1982–1983 and 1997–1998 events, which were pure eastern Pacific events, and (ii) the smaller mountain torque was compensated for by positive friction torques arising from an enhanced Hadley-type circulation in the eastern Pacific, leading to similar AAM–LOD signatures for all three extreme ENSO events. The 2015–2016 event thus contradicts the existing paradigm that mountain torques cause the Earth rotation response for extreme El Niño events.

Short summary
We explain how the extreme 2015–2016 El Niño event lengthened the day by 0.8 ms. The 2015–2016 event was an El Niño event of a different type compared to previous extreme events; thus, we expected different mechanisms of coupling with the solid Earth. We showed that the atmospheric torque on the American topography, usually acting alone during classical El Niños, was, in 2015–2016, augmented by a friction torque over the Pacific Ocean and inherent to the different nature of this particular event.
Final-revised paper