El Niño/Southern Oscillation and tropical Pacific climate during the last millennium


Any assessment of future climate change requires knowledge of the full range of natural variability in the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon. Here we splice together fossil-coral oxygen isotopic records from Palmyra Island in the tropical Pacific Ocean to provide 30–150-year windows of tropical Pacific climate variability within the last 1,100 years. The records indicate mean climate conditions in the central tropical Pacific ranging from relatively cool and dry during the tenth century to increasingly warmer and wetter climate in the twentieth century. But the corals also document a broad range of ENSO behaviour that correlates poorly with these estimates of mean climate. The most intense ENSO activity within the reconstruction occurred during the mid-seventeenth century. Taken together, the coral data imply that the majority of ENSO variability over the last millennium may have arisen from dynamics internal to the ENSO system itself.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Maps of the study site.
Figure 2: Comparison of coral-based and instrumental records of central tropical Pacific climate during the twentieth century.
Figure 3: The δ18O match between a young fossil coral from Palmyra (black) and the Palmyra modern coral (grey).
Figure 4: Overlapping fossil-coral δ18O records.
Figure 5: Comparison of proxy climate records and external forcing during the last millennium.
Figure 6: ENSO and lower-frequency components of the Palmyra coral δ18O records.


  1. 1

    Jin, F. F. An equatorial ocean recharge paradigm for ENSO. 1. Conceptual model. J. Atmos. Sci. 54, 811–829 (1997)

  2. 2

    Neelin, J. D. et al. ENSO theory. J. Geophys. Res. C 103, 14261–14290 (1998)

  3. 3

    Kleeman, R. & Power, S. B. Limits to predictability in a coupled ocean-atmosphere model due to atmospheric noise. Tellus A 46, 529–540 (1994)

  4. 4

    Graham, N. E. & White, W. B. The El Niño cycle: A natural oscillator of the Pacific ocean-atmosphere system. Science 240, 1293–1302 (1988)

  5. 5

    Jin, F. F., Neelin, J. D. & Ghil, M. El-Niño on the Devil's staircase—annual subharmonic steps to chaos. Science 264, 70–72 (1994)

  6. 6

    Tziperman, E., Stone, L., Cane, M. A. & Jarosh, H. El Niño chaos—overlapping of resonances between the seasonal cycle and the Pacific Ocean-Atmosphere Oscillator. Science 264, 72–74 (1994)

  7. 7

    Cane, M. A., Zebiak, S. E. & Xue, Y. in Natural Climate Variability on Decade-to-Century Time Scales (ed. Martinson, D. G. et al.) 442–457 (National Academy Press, Washington DC, 1995)

  8. 8

    Gu, D. & Philander, S. G. H. Interdecadal climate fluctuations that depend on exchanges between the tropics and extratropics. Science 275, 805–807 (1997)

  9. 9

    Latif, M., Kleeman, R. & Eckert, C. Greenhouse warming, decadal variability, or El Niño? An attempt to understand the anomalous 1990's. J. Clim. 10, 2221–2239 (1997)

  10. 10

    Fedorov, A. V. & Philander, S. G. A stability analysis of tropical ocean-atmosphere interactions: Bridging measurements and theory for El Niño. J. Clim. 14, 3086–3101 (2001)

  11. 11

    Trenberth, K. E. & Hoar, T. J. The 1990-1995 El Niño-Southern Oscillation event: Longest on record. Geophys. Res. Lett. 23, 57–60 (1996)

  12. 12

    Rajagopalan, B., Lall, U. & Cane, M. A. Anomalous ENSO occurrences: An alternate view. J. Clim. 10, 2351–2357 (1997)

  13. 13

    Harrison, D. E. & Larkin, N. K. Darwin sea level pressure, 1876-1996: Evidence for climate change? Geophys. Res. Lett. 24, 1779–1782 (1997)

  14. 14

    Tett, S. Simulation of El Niño-Southern Oscillation-like variability in a global AOGCM and its response to CO2 increase. J. Clim. 8, 1473–1502 (1995)

  15. 15

    Knutson, T. R., Manabe, S. & Gu, D. F. Simulated ENSO in a global coupled ocean-atmosphere model: Multidecadal amplitude modulation and CO2 sensitivity. J. Climate 10, 138–161 (1997)

  16. 16

    Timmermann, A. et al. Increased El Niño frequency in a climate model forced by future greenhouse warming. Nature 398, 694–697 (1999)

  17. 17

    Zhang, Y., Wallace, J. M. & Battisti, S. ENSO-like interdecadal variability: 1900-93. J. Clim. 10, 1004–1020 (1997)

  18. 18

    Hendy, E. J. et al. Abrupt decrease in tropical Pacific Sea surface salinity at end of Little Ice Age. Science 295, 1511–1514 (2002)

  19. 19

    McPhaden, M. J. & Zhang, D. X. Slowdown of the meridional overturning circulation in the upper Pacific Ocean. Nature 415, 603–608 (2002)

  20. 20

    Cole, J. E., Fairbanks, R. G. & Shen, G. T. Recent variability in the Southern Oscillation—isotopic results from a Tarawa Atoll coral. Science 260, 1790–1793 (1993)

  21. 21

    Evans, M. N., Fairbanks, R. G. & Rubenstone, J. L. The thermal oceanographic signal of El Niño reconstructed from a Kiritimati Island coral. J. Geophys. Res. C 104, 13409–13421 (1999)

  22. 22

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

  23. 23

    Cobb, K. M., Charles, C. D. & Hunter, D. E. A central tropical Pacific coral demonstrates Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic decadal climate connections. Geophys. Res. Lett. 28, 2209–2212 (2001)

  24. 24

    McCulloch, M. et al. High-resolution windows into early Holocene climate: Sr/Ca coral records from the Huon Peninsula. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 138, 169–178 (1996)

  25. 25

    Tudhope, A. W. et al. Variability in the El Niño–Southern Oscillation through a glacial-interglacial cycle. Science 291, 1511–1517 (2001)

  26. 26

    Hughen, K. A., Schrag, D. P., Jacobsen, S. B. & Hantoro, W. El Niño during the last interglacial period recorded by a fossil coral from Indonesia. Geophys. Res. Lett. 26, 3129–3132 (1999)

  27. 27

    Scoffin, T. P. The geological effects of hurricanes on coral reefs and the interpretation of storm deposits. Coral Reefs 12, 203–221 (1993)

  28. 28

    Cobb, K. M., Charles, C. D., Cheng, H., Kastner, M. & Edwards, R. L. U/Th-dating living and young fossil corals from the central tropical Pacific. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 210, 91–103 (2003)

  29. 29

    Linsley, B. K., Messier, R. G. & Dunbar, R. B. Assessing between-colony oxygen isotope variability in the coral Porites lobata at Clipperton Atoll. Coral Reefs 18, 13–27 (1999)

  30. 30

    Timmermann, A. Changes of ENSO stability due to greenhouse warming. Geophys. Res. Lett. 28, 2061–2064 (2001)

  31. 31

    Evans, M. N., Kaplan, A., Cane, M. A. & Vintzileos, A. in Inter-hemispheric Climate Linkages (ed. Markgraf, V.) 53–72 (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, 2001)

  32. 32

    Evans, M. N., Kaplan, A. & Cane, M. A. Pacific sea surface temperature field reconstruction from coral δ18O data using reduced space objective analysis. Paleoceanography 17, 10.1029/2000PA000590 (2002)

  33. 33

    Mann, M. E., Bradley, R. S. & Malcolm, K. H. in El Niño and the Southern Oscillation: Multiscale Variability and Global and Regional Impacts (eds Diaz, H. F. & Markgraf, V.) 357–412 (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, 2000)

  34. 34

    Mann, M. E., Bradley, R. S. & Hughes, M. K. Northern hemisphere temperatures during the past millennium: Inferences, uncertainties, and limitations. Geophys. Res. Lett. 26, 759–762 (1999)

  35. 35

    Crowley, T. J. Causes of climate change over the past 1000 years. Science 289, 270–277 (2000)

  36. 36

    Hodell, D. A., Brenner, M., Curtis, J. H. & Guilderson, T. Solar forcing of drought frequency in the Maya lowlands. Science 292, 1367–1370 (2001)

  37. 37

    Black, D. E. et al. Eight centuries of North Atlantic Ocean atmosphere variability. Science 286, 1709–1713 (1999)

  38. 38

    Robock, A. Volcanic eruptions and climate. Rev. Geophys. 38, 191–219 (2000)

  39. 39

    Hodell, D. A., Curtis, J. H. & Brenner, M. Possible role of climate in the collapse of Classic Maya civilization. Nature 375, 391–394 (1995)

  40. 40

    Stine, S. Extreme and persistent drought in California and Patagonia during Mediaeval time. Nature 369, 546–549 (1994)

  41. 41

    Verschuren, D., Laird, K. R. & Cumming, B. F. Rainfall and drought in equatorial east Africa during the past 1,100 years. Nature 403, 410–414 (2000)

  42. 42

    Dai, A. & Wigley, T. M. L. Global patterns of ENSO-induced precipitation. Geophys. Res. Lett. 27, 1283–1286 (2000)

  43. 43

    Haug, G. H., Hughen, K. A., Sigman, D. M., Peterson, L. C. & Rohl, U. Southward migration of the intertropical convergence zone through the Holocene. Science 293, 1304–1308 (2001)

  44. 44

    Correge, T. et al. Little Ice Age sea surface temperature variability in the southwest tropical Pacific. Geophys. Res. Lett. 28, 3477–3480 (2001)

  45. 45

    Parker, D. E., Folland, C. K. & Jackson, M. Marine surface temperature: Observed variations and data requirements. Clim. Change 31, 559–600 (1995)

  46. 46

    Xie, P. P. & Arkin, P. A. Global precipitation: A 17-year monthly analysis based on gauge observations, satellite estimates, and numerical model outputs. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 78, 2539–2558 (1997)

  47. 47

    Kaplan, A. et al. Analyses of global sea surface temperature 1856-1991. J. Geophys. Res. C 103, 18567–18589 (1998)

  48. 48

    Jones, P. D. et al. Northern Hemisphere surface air temperature variations: 1851-1984. J. Clim. Appl. Meteorol. 25, 161–179 (1986)

  49. 49

    Lean, J., Beer, J. & Bradley, R. Reconstruction of solar irradiance since 1610—implications for climate change. Geophys. Res. Lett. 22, 3195–3198 (1995)

  50. 50

    Bard, E., Raisbeck, G., Yiou, F. & Jouzel, J. Solar irradiance during the last 1200 years based on cosmogenic nuclides. Tellus B 52, 985–992 (2000)

Download references


We thank M. Moore and J. Ardai for field assistance, T. Guilderson for preliminary radiocarbon dates, and A. Timmermann for comments on an early draft of the manuscript. We also thank the Khaled bin Sultan Living Ocean Foundation and The Nature Conservancy for financial and logistical support during two field excursions to Palmyra. K.M.C. was supported by a NSF graduate fellowship, and the work was supported by NOAA (C.D.C.) and NSF (R.L.E.).

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Kim M. Cobb.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Cobb, K., Charles, C., Cheng, H. et al. El Niño/Southern Oscillation and tropical Pacific climate during the last millennium. Nature 424, 271–276 (2003). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature01779

Download citation

Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.