In comparison with the western and equatorial Pacific Ocean, relatively little is known about the east Pacific warm pool (EPWP). Observations indicate that the interannual variability of sea surface temperature (SST) in the EPWP is highly correlated (0.95) with the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO). In this paper, an ocean general circulation model (OGCM) of the tropical Pacific Ocean and various atmospheric and oceanic observations are used to diagnose the physical processes governing the interannual variability of SST in the EPWP. Atmospheric forcings for the OGCM are derived purely from satellite observations between 1988 and 2004.
Shortwave heating is identified as playing a dominant role in the interannual SST tendency of the EPWP. The high correlation between SST in the EPWP and eastern equatorial Pacific is therefore explained not by ocean processes, but by an atmospheric link. ENSO-driven equatorial SST anomalies modify the distribution of the overlying atmospheric vertical motions and therefore cloud cover and ultimately shortwave heating. During an El Niño event, for example, the ITCZ is equatorward displaced from its normal position over the EPWP, resulting in anomalously large shortwave heating over the EPWP. Analysis of poleward ocean heat transport and coastal Kelvin waves confirms that oceanic processes are not sufficient to explain the interannual variability of the EPWP.