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WIREs Clim Change
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Investigating El Niño‐Southern Oscillation and society relationships

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Throughout at least the past several centuries, El Niño‐Southern Oscillation (ENSO) has played a significant role in human response to climate. Over time, increased attention on ENSO has led to a better understanding of both the physical mechanisms, and the environmental and societal consequences of the phenomenon. The prospects for seasonal climate forecasting emerged from ENSO studies, and were first pursued in ENSO studies. In this paper, we review ENSO's impact on society, specifically with regard to agriculture, water, and health; we also explore the extent to which ENSO‐related forecasts are used to inform decision making in these sectors. We find that there are significant differences in the uptake of forecasts across sectors, with the highest use in agriculture, intermediate use in water resources management, and the lowest in health. Forecast use is low in areas where ENSO linkages to climate are weak, but the strength of this linkage alone does not guarantee use. Moreover, the differential use of ENSO forecasts by sector shows the critical role of institutions that work at the boundary between science and society. In a long‐term iterative process requiring continual maintenance, these organizations serve to enhance the salience, credibility, and legitimacy of forecasts and related climate services. WIREs Clim Change 2015, 6:17–34. doi: 10.1002/wcc.294

El Niño anomalies in sea surface temperature (SST) (color shading and scale in °C), surface atmospheric pressure (contours), and surface wind stress (vectors) in the Pacific basin. Pressure contour interval is 0.5 mb, with solid contours positive and dashed contours negative. Wind stress vectors indicate direction and intensity, with the longest vector equivalent to ∼1 N m−2. The patterns in this graphic are derived from a linear regression against SST anomalies averaged over 6°N–6°S, 90°W–180° in the eastern and central equatorial Pacific. All quantities scale up or down with the intensity of anomalies in this index region (reproduced from McPhaden et al.).
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Spatial distribution of research articles addressing El Niño‐Southern Oscillation (ENSO) forecast use. The size of the pies is proportional to the number of studies. Regions are indicated on the map by background color.
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Time evolution of the number of research articles addressing El Niño‐Southern Oscillation (ENSO) forecast use. Solid lines show the actual time series for each sector, while the dotted lines sketch their long‐term linear trend. El Niño years appear in bold in the x‐axis.
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Distribution of research articles addressing El Niño‐Southern Oscillation (ENSO) forecast use, by sector and region. The numbers on top of each column correspond to the total number of articles on each sector.
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IRI probabilistic seasonal forecast for January–March 1998 precipitation, produced in January 1998. The figure depicts for each of the colored zones the probability (in percent) of above‐normal (upper box), near‐normal (center box), and below‐normal (lower box) precipitation for the season January–March 1998, as defined by terciles of the climatological distribution of rainfall for those regions and season. ‘Red’ colors refer to regions where below‐normal precipitation is most probable, and ‘green’ colors refer to regions where above‐normal precipitation is most probable.
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