NOAA: What is the Madden-Julian Oscillation, and why do we care?

Here’s a discussion from Climate.gov. Click through for the whole article and the animation:

The articles posted on this blog have described ENSO, its regional and global impacts, and the challenge of forecasting it, among several other topics. Here we introduce another important player on the tropical stage: the Madden-Julian Oscillation, or MJO. While the MJO is a lesser-known phenomenon, it can have dramatic impacts in the mid-latitudes. Several times a year the MJO is a strong contributor to various extreme events in the United States, including Arctic air outbreaks during the winter months across the central and eastern portions of the United States.

So what is the MJO?

Imagine ENSO as a person riding a stationary exercise bike in the middle of a stage all day long. His unchanging location is associated with the persistent changes in tropical rainfall and winds that we have previously described as being linked to ENSO. Now imagine another bike rider entering the stage on the left and pedaling slowly across the stage, passing the stationary bike (ENSO), and exiting the stage at the right. This bike rider we will call the MJO and he/she may cross the stage from left to right several times during the show.

So, unlike ENSO, which is stationary, the MJO is an eastward moving disturbance of clouds, rainfall, winds, and pressure that traverses the planet in the tropics and returns to its initial starting point in 30 to 60 days, on average. This atmospheric disturbance is distinct from ENSO, which once established, is associated with persistent features that last several seasons or longer over the Pacific Ocean basin. There can be multiple MJO events within a season, and so the MJO is best described as intraseasonal tropical climate variability (i.e. varies on a week-to-week basis).

The MJO was first discovered in the early 1970s by Dr. Roland Madden and Dr. Paul Julian when they were studying tropical wind and pressure patterns. They often noticed regular oscillations in winds (as defined from departures from average) between Singapore and Canton Island in the west central equatorial Pacific (Madden and Julian, 1971; 1972; Zhang, 2005).

The MJO consists of two parts, or phases: one is the enhanced rainfall (or convective) phase and the other is the suppressed rainfall phase. Strong MJO activity often dissects the planet into halves: one half within the enhanced convective phase and the other half in the suppressed convective phase. These two phases produce opposite changes in clouds and rainfall and this entire dipole (i.e., having two main opposing centers of action) propagates eastward. The location of the convective phases are often grouped into geographically based stages that climate scientists number 1-8 as shown in Figure 1.

maddenjulianoscillationphasesvianoaa

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