Letter

Nature 461, 511-514 (24 September 2009) | doi:10.1038/nature08316; Received 29 December 2008; Accepted 21 July 2009

There is an Erratum (3 December 2009) associated with this document.

El Niño in a changing climate

Sang-Wook Yeh1, Jong-Seong Kug1, Boris Dewitte2, Min-Ho Kwon3, Ben P. Kirtman4 & Fei-Fei Jin3

  1. Climate Change and Coastal Disaster Research Department, Korea Ocean Research and Development Institute, 426-744, Ansan, Korea
  2. Laboratoire d'Etude en Geophysique et Oceanographie Spatiale, 14 avenue Edouard Belin, 31400, Toulouse, France
  3. Department of Meteorology, School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, University of Hawaii, 1680 East-West Road, Honolulu, 96822, Hawaii, USA
  4. University of Miami, Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, 4600 Rickenbacker Causeway, Miami, Florida, 33149, USA

Correspondence to: Sang-Wook Yeh1 Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to S.-W.Y. (Email: swyeh@kordi.re.kr).

El Niño events, characterized by anomalous warming in the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean, have global climatic teleconnections and are the most dominant feature of cyclic climate variability on subdecadal timescales. Understanding changes in the frequency or characteristics of El Niño events in a changing climate is therefore of broad scientific and socioeconomic interest. Recent studies1, 2, 3, 4, 5 show that the canonical El Niño has become less frequent and that a different kind of El Niño has become more common during the late twentieth century, in which warm sea surface temperatures (SSTs) in the central Pacific are flanked on the east and west by cooler SSTs. This type of El Niño, termed the central Pacific El Niño (CP-El Niño; also termed the dateline El Niño2, El Niño Modoki3 or warm pool El Niño5), differs from the canonical eastern Pacific El Niño (EP-El Niño) in both the location of maximum SST anomalies and tropical–midlatitude teleconnections. Here we show changes in the ratio of CP-El Niño to EP-El Niño under projected global warming scenarios from the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project phase 3 multi-model data set6. Using calculations based on historical El Niño indices, we find that projections of anthropogenic climate change are associated with an increased frequency of the CP-El Niño compared to the EP-El Niño. When restricted to the six climate models with the best representation of the twentieth-century ratio of CP-El Niño to EP-El Niño, the occurrence ratio of CP-El Niño/EP-El Niño is projected to increase as much as five times under global warming. The change is related to a flattening of the thermocline in the equatorial Pacific.

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