Teleconnections were first noted by the British meteorologist Sir Gilbert Walker in the late nineteenth century, through computation of the correlation between time series of atmospheric pressure, temperature and rainfall. They served as a building block for the understanding of climate variability, by showing that the latter was not purely random.
Indeed, the term El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is an implicit acknowledgment that the phenomenon underlies variability in several locations at once. It was later noticed that associated teleconnections occurred all over North America, as embodied by the Pacific-North American teleconnection pattern.
In the 1980's, improved observations allowed to detect teleconnections at larger distances throughout the troposphere. Concomitantly, the theory emerged that such patterns could be understood through the dispersion of Rossby waves due to the spherical geometry of the Earth. This is sometimes called the "proto-model.
Teleconnections within the tropical Pacific began to be understood thanks to the idealized calculations of A.E. Gill and later through more complex models.
Building upon the "proto-model", much of the early theory of teleconnections dealt with barotropic, linearized model of atmospheric flow about a constant mean state. However, the model was soon invalidated when it was discovered that actual teleconnection patterns were nearly insensitive to the location of the forcing, in direct contradiction with the predictions offered by this simple picture. Simmons and collaborators showed that if a more realistic background state was prescribed, it would become unstable, leading to a similar pattern regardless of the location of the forcing, in accordance to observations. This "modal" property turned out to be an artifact of the barotropicity of the model, though it has appeared for more subtle reasons in more realistic models.
More recent work has shown that most teleconnections from the tropics to the extratropics can be understood to surprising accuracy by the propagation of linear, planetary waves upon a 3-dimensionall seasonally-varying basic state.. Because the patterns are persistent over time and somewhat "locked" to geographical feature such as mountain ranges, these waves are called stationary.
There is another mechanism of teleconnection between tropical oceans and midlatitude regions, one that is symmetric along latitude circles (i.e. "zonal") and between hemispheres, contrary to the stationary wave mechanism. It relies on interactions between transient eddies and the mean atmospheric flow that are mutually reinforcing (i.e. non-linear). It has been shown to explain some aspects of ENSO teleconnections in temperature and rainfall.
- Progress during TOGA in understanding and modeling global teleconnections associated with tropical sea surface temperatures Trenberth, Kevin E; Branstator, Grant W; Karoly, David; Kumar, Arun; Ropelewski, Chester; Lau, Ngar-Cheung Journal of Geophysical Research. Vol. 103, no. C7, pp. 14, 291-14, 324. 29 June 1998