It is not known how global warming will affect the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO). The instrumental record is too short to discern centennial-scale trends and modelling results are inconclusive1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Proxy reconstructions indicate that ENSO activity was relatively high during the late twentieth century6, 7, 8, 9, 10, but whether this was unusual in the millennial context remains uncertain. Here we present insights into these issues derived from rings of the kauri tree (Agathis australis), a rare long-lived conifer endemic to the forests of northern New Zealand. Our results indicate that the twentieth century was the most ‘ENSO-active’ century of the past 500 years, but may not be unique in the context of the past 700 years, and that ENSO activity comparable to or elevated above that experienced during the late twentieth century is plausible under warmer-than-present conditions. We also find evidence that there may have been significant changes in the ENSO teleconnection to the New Zealand region during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and of multi-decadal fluctuations in ENSO-related activity building up to the present day. Although these two features may delay the expression of increased ENSO activity in the New Zealand region, our results indicate that New Zealand climate is likely to be more dominated by ENSO-related inter-annual variability as the world continues to warm.
At a glance
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