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What is the MJO, and why do we care?

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.

For the MJO to be considered active, this dipole of enhanced/suppressed convective phases must be present and shifting eastward with time. An animated illustration that depicts the global scale and eastward propagation of these two phases of the MJO is shown here (Fig. 2: animation).

What’s behind the pattern?

Let’s dig a little deeper and look at some of the characteristics within these two convective phases (Figure 3). In the enhanced convective phase, winds at the surface converge, and air is pushed up throughout the atmosphere. At the top of the atmosphere, the winds reverse (i.e., diverge). Such rising air motion in the atmosphere tends to increase condensation and rainfall.

In the suppressed convective phase, winds converge at the top of the atmosphere, forcing air to sink and, later, to diverge at the surface (Rui and Wang, 1990). As air sinks from high altitudes, it warms and dries, which suppresses rainfall.

It is this entire dipole structure, illustrated in Figure 3, that moves west to east with time in the Tropics, causing more cloudiness, rainfall, and even storminess in the enhanced convective phase, and more sunshine and dryness in the suppressed convective phase.  

The changes in rainfall and winds described above impact both the Tropics and the Extratropics, which makes the MJO important for extended-range weather and climate prediction over the U.S. and many other areas. The MJO can modulate the timing and strength of monsoons (e.g., Jones and Carvalho, 2002; Lavender and Matthews, 2009), influence tropical cyclone numbers and strength in nearly all ocean basins (e.g., Maloney and Hartmann, 2000), and result in jet stream changes that can lead to cold air outbreaks, extreme heat events, and flooding rains over the United States and North America (Higgins et al. 2000, Cassou, 2008, Lin et al. 2009, Zhou et al., 2012, Riddle et al., 2013, Johnson et al., 2014).

The MJO can produce impacts similar to those of ENSO, but which appear only in weekly averages before changing, rather than persisting and therefore appearing in seasonal averages as is the case for ENSO.

Future posts will focus on the details of how we monitor and assess the strength of the MJO, provide details on impacts and the reasons for those impacts, and describe the current state of MJO predictability.  Realtime MJO information that is updated daily or weekly can be found on the NOAA CPC MJO webpage.

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