Combining machine learning and SMILEs to classify, better understand, and project changes in ENSO events

Nicola Maher*, Thibault P. Tabarin, Sebastian Milinski

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)


The El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) occurs in three phases: neutral, warm (El Niño), and cool (La Niña). While classifying El Niño and La Niña is relatively straightforward, El Niño events can be broadly classified into two types: central Pacific (CP) and eastern Pacific (EP). Differentiating between CP and EP events is currently dependent on both the method and observational dataset used. In this study, we create a new classification scheme using supervised machine learning trained on 18 observational and re-analysis products. This builds on previous work by identifying classes of events using the temporal evolution of sea surface temperature in multiple regions across the tropical Pacific. By applying this new classifier to seven single model initial-condition large ensembles (SMILEs) we investigate both the internal variability and forced changes in each type of ENSO event, where events identified behave similarly to those observed. It is currently debated whether the observed increase in the frequency of CP events after the late 1970s is due to climate change. We found it to be within the range of internal variability in the SMILEs for trends after 1950, but not for the full observed period (1896 onwards). When considering future changes, we do not project a change in CP frequency or amplitude under a strong warming scenario (RCP8.5/SSP370) and we find model differences in EP El Niño and La Niña frequency and amplitude projections. Finally, we find that models show differences in projected precipitation and sea surface temperature (SST) pattern changes for each event type that do not seem to be linked to the Pacific mean state SST change, although the SST and precipitation changes in individual SMILEs are linked. Our work demonstrates the value of combining machine learning with climate models, and highlights the need to use SMILEs when evaluating ENSO in climate models because of the large spread of results found within a single model due to internal variability alone.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1289-1304
Number of pages16
JournalEarth System Dynamics
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 6 Sept 2022
Externally publishedYes


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