Cane and Zebiak: Developing a Coupled ENSO Model

ENSO -> Seasonal Climate -> Impacts on Society

Mark Cane and Stephen Zebiak are credited with creating the first coupled oceanic-atmospheric model to predict an El Niño.

Although experimental forecasts of El Niño have been made since 1970, some researchers felt that the current state of accumulated knowledge on the topic bolstered by advanced computing could finally allow for skillful forecast production from a model that captured the evolution of the ocean-atmosphere system relative to ENSO- a vast improvement from Walker’s method of comparing correlations.

While based at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in the early 1980's, the team of Mark Cane, Stephen Zebiak and Sean Dolan made a significant breakthrough in designing a deterministic numerical forecasting model that forecasted the occurrence of the 1986 El Niño. Dedicated to increasing the skill of future forecasts, in 1987 Zebiak and Cane published additional research that described the development of a coupled atmosphere-ocean model that “reproduced certain key features… including the recurrence of warm events at irregular intervals”. A key feature of their research was a discussion how the outputs could increase predictability of El Niño with lead times greater than 1 year. The efforts of Cane and Zebiak led to a second successful forecast in 1991, when they again predicted the development of El Niño with over a year lead time.

Cane and Zebiak's Key Works

Cane, M. A., Zebiak, S. E. and Dolan, S. C. (1986). Experimental forecasts of El Niño. Nature, 115(10), 2262-2278.

Zebiak, S. E. and Cane, M. A. (1987). A Model El Niño-Southern Oscillation. Monthly Weather Review, 97(3), 163-172.