Global Patterns: Pacific Decadal Oscillation

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The Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) is a pattern of Pacific climate variability similar to ENSO in character, but which varies over a much longer time scale. The PDO can remain in the same phase for 20 to 30 years, while ENSO cycles typically only last 6 to 18 months. The PDO, like ENSO, consists of a warm and cool phase which alters upper level atmospheric winds. Shifts in the PDO phase can have significant implications for global climate, affecting Pacific and Atlantic hurricane activity, droughts and flooding around the Pacific basin, the productivity of marine ecosystems, and global land temperature patterns. Experts also believe the PDO can intensify or diminish the impacts of ENSO according to its phase. If both ENSO and the PDO are in the same phase, it is believed that El Niño/La Nina impacts may be magnified. Conversely, if ENSO and the PDO are out of phase, it has been proposed that they may offset one another, preventing "true" ENSO impacts from occurring.
PDO Phase

Researchers have found evidence for just two full PDO cycles in the past century: cold PDO regimes prevailed from 1890-1924 and again from 1947-1976, while warm PDO regimes dominated from 1925-1946 and from 1977 through the mid-1990's.


Warm PDO

The broad area of above average water temperatures off the coast of North America from Alaska to the equator is a classic feature of the warm phase of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO). The warm waters wrap in a horseshoe shape around a core of cooler-than-average water. Impacts from the PDO depend in part on how it is aligned with the ENSO cycle; if the cycles are in opposite phases, then effects will be weakened. However, when both the PDO and ENSO are in the warm phase, meaning ENSO would be in the El Niño phase, expected impacts on the southeast include:
  • Below average winter temperatures
  • Above average winter precipitation
Sea Surface Temperature Anomalies During a Warm PDO Phase


Cold PDO

Opposite of the warm PDO, the expansive area of below average water temperatures off the coast of North America from Alaska to the equator signals the cold phase of the PDO. The area of warmer-than-average sea surface temperatures in the central Pacific are surrounded by below average temperatures near the North American continent. Expected impacts from a cold PDO and ENSO (La Nina) phase on the southeast include:
  • Above average winter temperatures
  • Below average winter precipitation
Sea Surface Temperature Anomalies During a Cold PDO Phase

Current PDO Conditions

Interactive graph from NOAA NCEI

Sources and Additional Information