Conceptual delay models have played a key role in the analysis and understanding of El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) variability. Based on such delay models, we propose in this work a novel scenario for the fabric of ENSO variability resulting from the subtle interplay between stochastic disturbances and nonlinear invariant sets emerging from bifurcations of the unperturbed dynamics.
To identify these invariant sets we adopt an approach combining Galerkin-Koornwinder (GK) approximations of delay differential equations and center-unstable manifold reduction techniques. In that respect, GK approximation formulas are reviewed and synthesized, as well as analytic approximation formulas of center-unstable manifolds. The reduced systems derived thereof enable us to conduct a thorough analysis of the bifurcations arising in a standard delay model of ENSO. We identify thereby a saddle-node bifurcation of periodic orbits co-existing with a subcritical Hopf bifurcation, and a homoclinic bifurcation for this model. We show furthermore that the computation of unstable periodic orbits (UPOs) unfolding through these bifurcations is considerably simplified from the reduced systems.
These dynamical insights enable us in turn to design a stochastic model whose solutions—as the delay parameter drifts slowly through its critical values—produce a wealth of temporal patterns resembling ENSO events and exhibiting also decadal variability. Our analysis dissects the origin of this variability and shows how it is tied to certain transition paths between invariant sets of the unperturbed dynamics (for ENSO’s interannual variability) or simply due to the presence of UPOs close to the homoclinic orbit (for decadal variability). In short, this study points out the role of solution paths evolving through tipping “points” beyond equilibria, as possible mechanisms organizing the variability of certain climate phenomena.