Updated on 12 March 2020

ENSO status

The El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) monitoring system remains in the “Neutral” state. Sea-surface temperatures (SSTs) over the Nino3.4 region of the Tropical Pacific Ocean and atmospheric indicators of ENSO (e.g. cloudiness and wind anomalies) are in neutral conditions. The Nino3.4 index was 0.41°C for January 2020 and 0.30°C for the November 2019-January 2020 three-month average.

Models from international centres predict a wide range of possible outcomes for the Nino3.4 SST anomalies until July 2020. However, there is high likelihood for neutral conditions to continue into most of the first half of 2020.

Further Information on ENSO

ENSO conditions are monitored by analysing Pacific sea surface temperatures (SSTs), low level winds, cloudiness (using outgoing longwave radiation), and sub-surface temperatures. Special attention is given to SSTs, as they are one of the key indicators used to monitor ENSO. Here, three different datasets are used: HadISST, ERSSTv5, and COBE datasets. As globally, SSTs have gradually warmed over the last century under the influence of climate change, the SST values over the Nino3.4 will increasingly be magnified with time, and hence appear warmer than they should be. Therefore, this background trend is removed from the SST datasets (Turkington, Timbal, & Rahmat, 2018), before calculating SST anomalies using the climatology period 1976-2014. So far, there has been no noticeable background trend in the low-level winds or cloudiness.

El Niño (La Niña) conditions are associated with warmer (colder) SSTs in the central and eastern Pacific. The threshold for an El Niño (La Niña) in the Nino3.4 region is above 0.65°C (below -0.65°C). El Niño (La Niña) conditions also correspond to an increase (decrease) in cloudiness around or to the east of the international dateline (180°), with a decrease (increase) in cloudiness in the west. There is also a decrease (increase) in the trade winds in the eastern Pacific. Sub-surface temperatures in the eastern Pacific should also be warmer (colder) than average, to sustain the El Niño (La Niña) conditions.

For ENSO outlooks, information from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and international climate centres are assessed. The centres include the Climate Prediction Center (CPC) USA, the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) Australia, as well as information from the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) which consolidates model outputs from other centres around the world. Each centre uses different criteria, including different SST thresholds. Therefore, variations between centres on the current ENSO state should be expected, especially when conditions are borderline.


The sea surface temperatures (SSTs) over the central and eastern tropical Pacific, although warmer than average, remained within neutral thresholds in January 2020 (Figure 1). Across the Indian Ocean, the SSTs were warmer than average, thus the Indian Ocean Dipole (difference between the western and eastern anomalies) is neutral. Both the tropical Pacific and Indian Ocean is expected to remain in the neutral state for the first half of 2020.

Sea surface temperature anomaly plot

Figure 1: Detrended SST anomalies for January 2020 with respect to 1976-2014 climatology using ERSST v5 data. Red (blue) shades show regions of relative warming (cooling). The tropical Pacific Ocean Nino3.4 Region is outlined in red. The Indian Ocean Dipole index is the difference between average SST anomalies over the western Indian Ocean (black solid box) and the eastern Indian Ocean (black dotted box).

Looking at the Nino3.4 index over the past year or so (Figure 2), after the 2017-2018 La Niña, the 1-month Nino3.4 value continued warming. It peaked in November 2018 after having crossed the El Niño threshold (0.65°C) for 2 months (October and November 2018). Subsequently, the Nino3.4 value fluctuated around the threshold until April 2019, when it weakened and remained within neutral values since. For El Niño conditions to be present, 1-month warm SST anomalies (observed or forecast) should persist for at least four months above the threshold, with at least one of the months observed along supporting atmospheric observations.

Observed Nino3.4 index

Figure 2: The Nino3.4 index using the 1-month SST anomalies. Warm anomalies (≥ +0.65; brown) correspond to El Niño conditions while cold anomalies (≤ -0.65; blue) correspond to La Niña conditions; otherwise neutral (> -0.65 and < +0.65; grey).

Model outlooks from Copernicus C3S (Figure 3) indicate Nino3.4 SST to be within a spread of possible outcomes ranging from moderate El Niño to strong La Niña up to July 2020. However, the values are expected to remain neutral based on most ensemble forecast members falling within neutral thresholds.

Forecast Nino3.4 index

Figure 3: Forecasts of Nino3.4 index’s strength for until July 2020 from various seasonal prediction models of international climate centres (image credit: Copernicus C3S).

Historical ENSO Variability

To classify a historical El Niño event, the 3-month average Nino3.4 value must be above 0.65°C for five or more consecutive months. For La Niña events, the threshold is -0.65°C. Otherwise, it is considered neutral. ENSO events with a peak value above 1.5°C (El Niño) or below -1.5°C (La Niña) are considered strong. Otherwise, the events are considered weak to moderate in strength. The following figure (Figure 4) shows the development of the Nino3.4 index in 2015-18 in comparison to other El Niño/La Niña events.

Past ENSO events

Figure 4: Three-month Nino3.4 index development and retreat of different El Niño (left)/La Niña (right) events since the 1960s. The most recent El Niño and La Niña events are in red and purple, respectively.

Impact of El Niño/La Niña on Southeast Asia

Typically, the impact of El Niño on Southeast Asia is drier-than-average rainfall conditions, especially during the period June and October, and over the Maritime Continent. Typically for the March-May season when an El Niño is present, drier conditions are expected over the Southeast Asia region except for the southwestern parts of the Maritime Continent (Figure 5, left). Warmer temperature conditions typically follow drier periods. The opposite conditions for rainfall (and consequently temperature) are observed during La Niña years (Figure 5, right).

The impact on the region’s rainfall and temperature from ENSO events is more significantly felt during strong or moderate-intensity events. Also, no two El Niño events or two La Niña events are exactly alike in terms of their impact.

Figure 5: March to May (MAM) season rainfall anomaly composites (mm/day) for El Niño (left) and La Niña (right) years. Brown (green) shades show regions of drier (wetter) conditions. Note that this anomaly composite was generated using a limited number of El Niño and La Niña occurrences between 1979 and 2017 and therefore should be interpreted with caution (data: NOAA CPC CAMS_OPI).


Turkington, T., Timbal, B., & Rahmat, R. (2018). The impact of global warming on sea surface temperature based El Nino Southern Oscillation monitoring indices. International Journal of Climatology, 39(2).

El Niño/La Niña
  • All maps are to be used solely for displaying meteorological/geophysical information, and not for any other purpose. All maps are not to scale and for illustrative purpose only.
  • For El Niño/La Niña updates, information provided by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and various international climate centres are assessed. The centres include the Climate Prediction Center (CPC) USA, the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) Australia, as well as information from the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) which consolidates model outputs from various other centres around the world.