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Influence of mean climate change on climate variability from a 155-year tropical Pacific coral record


Today, the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) system is the primary driver of interannual variability in global climate, but its long-term behaviour is poorly understood. Instrumental observations reveal a shift in 1976 towards warmer and wetter conditions in the tropical Pacific, with widespread climatic and ecological consequences1,2,3. This shift, unique over the past century4, has prompted debate over the influence of increasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases on ENSO variability5,6,7. Here we present a 155-year ENSO reconstruction from a central tropical Pacific coral that provides new evidence for long-term changes in the regional mean climate and its variability. A gradual transition in the early twentieth century and the abrupt change in 1976, both towards warmer and wetter conditions, co-occur with changes in variability. In the mid–late nineteenth century, cooler and drier background conditions coincided with prominent decadal variability; in the early twentieth century, shorter-period (2.9 years) variability intensified. After 1920, variability weakens and becomes focused at interannual timescales; with the shift in 1976, variability with a period of about 4 years becomes prominent. Our results suggest that variability in the tropical Pacific is linked to the region’s mean climate, and that changes in both have occurred during periods of natural as well as anthropogenic climate forcing.

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Figure 1: Map of tropical Pacific, showing locations of instrumental and coral records used.
Figure 2: Bimonthly records of tropical Pacific variability from coral and instrumental data.
Figure 3: Results of cross-spectral analysis25 between the normalized Maiana coral record and other normalized Pacific datasets.
Figure 4: Evolutionary spectral analysis results.


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We thank B. Vaughn, T. Kimbell, J. Thurston and the Kiribati Ministry for Natural Resources Development (particularly J. Uan) for logistical assistance. Laboratory analyses were facilitated by C. Evans, J. Kelleher and B. Vaughn. We thank J. White for discussions. Reviews by M. Evans and R. Dunbar greatly improved the manuscript. COADS data are provided by the NOAA-CIRES Climate Diagnostics Centre from their web site at, and with assistance from S. Worley. TAO array data are provided by the TAO Project Office web site at We thank M. Mann and E. Cook for providing spectral analysis software and advice. This study was supported by the Earth System History Program of the US National Science Foundation and the NOAA Paleoclimatology Program.

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Correspondence to Julia E. Cole.

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Urban, F., Cole, J. & Overpeck, J. Influence of mean climate change on climate variability from a 155-year tropical Pacific coral record. Nature 407, 989–993 (2000).

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