Letter | Published:

Proxy evidence for an El Niño-like response to volcanic forcing


Past studies have suggested a statistical connection between explosive volcanic eruptions and subsequent El Niño climate events1,2. This connection, however, has remained controversial3,4,5. Here we present support for a response of the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon6,7 to forcing from explosive volcanism by using two different palaeoclimate reconstructions of El Niño activity8,9 and two independent, proxy-based chronologies of explosive volcanic activity5 from ad 1649 to the present. We demonstrate a significant, multi-year, El Niño-like response to explosive tropical volcanic forcing over the past several centuries. The results imply roughly a doubling of the probability of an El Niño event occurring in the winter following a volcanic eruption. Our empirical findings shed light on how the tropical Pacific ocean–atmosphere system may respond to exogenous (both natural and anthropogenic) radiative forcing.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.


  1. 1

    Handler, P. Possible association of stratospheric aerosols and El Niño type events. Geophys. Res. Lett. 11, 1121–1124 (1984)

  2. 2

    Handler, P. & Andsager, K. Possible association between the climatic effects of stratospheric aerosols and sea surface temperatures in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. Int. J. Climatol. 10, 413–424 (1990)

  3. 3

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

  4. 4

    Nicholls, N. Low-latitude volcanic eruptions and the El Niño/Southern Oscillation: A reply. Int. J. Climatol. 10, 425–429 (1990)

  5. 5

    Self, S., Rampino, M. R., Zhao, J. & Katz, M. G. Volcanic aerosol perturbations and strong El Niño events: No general correlation. Geophys. Res. Lett. 24, 1247–1250 (1997)

  6. 6

    Bjerknes, J. Atmospheric teleconnections from the equatorial Pacific. Mon. Weath. Rev. 97, 163–172 (1969)

  7. 7

    Zebiak, S. E. & Cane, M. A. A model El Niño/Southern Oscillation. Mon. Weath. Rev. 115, 2262–2278 (1987)

  8. 8

    Stahle, D. W. et al. Experimental dendroclimatic reconstruction of the Southern Oscillation. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 79, 2137–2152 (1998)

  9. 9

    Mann, M. E. et al. Global temperature patterns in past centuries: An interactive presentation. Earth Interact. 4-4, 1–29 (2000)

  10. 10

    Cane, M. A. et al. Twentieth-century sea surface temperature trends. Science 275, 957–960 (1997)

  11. 11

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

  12. 12

    Meehl, G. A. & Washington, W. M. El Niño-like climate change in a model with increased atmospheric CO2 concentrations. Nature 382, 56–60 (1996)

  13. 13

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

  14. 14

    Boer, J. G., Flato, G., Reader, M. C. & Ramsden, D. A transient climate change simulation with greenhouse gas and aerosol forcing: Experimental design and comparison with the instrumental record for the 20th century. Clim. Dyn. 16, 405–425 (2000)

  15. 15

    Meehl, G. A. et al. Response of the NCAR climate system model to increased CO2 and the role of physical processes. J. Clim. 13, 1879–1898 (2000)

  16. 16

    Noda, A., Yamaguchi, K., Yamaki, S., Yukimoto, S. Relationship between natural variability and CO2-induced warming pattern: MRI AOGCM experiment. 10th Symp. on Global Change Studies 10–15 January 1999, Dallas, TX. (American Meteorological Society, 1999).

  17. 17

    Clement, A. C., Seager, R., Cane, M. A. & Zebiak, S. E. An ocean dynamical thermostat. J. Clim. 9, 2190–2196 (1996)

  18. 18

    Hirono, M. On the trigger of El Niño Southern Oscillation by the forcing of early El Chichon volcanic aerosols. J. Geophys. Res. 93, 5365–5384 (1988)

  19. 19

    Robock, A. et al. GCM evaluation of a mechanism for El Niño triggering by the El Chichón ash cloud. Geophys. Res. Lett. 22, 2369–2372 (1995)

  20. 20

    Zielinski, G. A. Use of paleo-records in determining variability within the volcanism-climate system. Quat. Sci. Rev. 19, 417–438 (2000)

  21. 21

    Panofsky, H. A. & Brier, G. W. Some Applications of Statistics to Meteorology 159–161 (Penn. State University, University Park, Pennsylvania, 1958)

  22. 22

    Bradley, R. S., Diaz, H. F., Kiladis, G. N. & Eischeid, J. K. ENSO signal in continental temperature and precipitation records. Nature 327, 497–501 (1987)

  23. 23

    Sear, C. B., Kelly, P. M., Jones, P. D. & Goodess, C. M. Global surface-temperature responses to major volcanic eruptions. Nature 330, 365–367 (1987)

  24. 24

    Haurwitz, M. W. & Brier, G. W. A critique of superposed epoch analysis method: Its application to solar-weather relations. Mon. Weath. Rev. 109, 2074–2079 (1981)

  25. 25

    Simpkin, T. & Siebert, L. Volcanoes of the World 2nd edn (Smithsonian Institution, Geoscience Press, Tucson, Arizona, 1994)

  26. 26

    Robock, A. & Free, M. P. Ice cores as an index of global volcanism from 1850 to the present. J. Geophys. Res. 100, 11549–11567 (1995)

  27. 27

    Können, G. P., Jones, P. D., Kaltofen, M. H. & Allan, R. J. Pre-1866 extensions of the Southern Oscillation Index using early Indonesian and Tahitian meteorological readings. J. Clim. 11, 2325–2339 (1998)

  28. 28

    Kaplan, A., Cane, M. A., Kushnir, Y. & Clement, A. C. Analyses of global sea surface temperature 1856–1991. J. Geophys. Res. 103, 18567–18589 (1998)

  29. 29

    Cobb, K. M., Charles, C. D., Edwards, R. L., Cheng, H. & Kastner, M. El Niño-Southern Oscillation and tropical Pacific climate during the last millennium. Nature 424, 271–276 (2003)

  30. 30

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

Download references


This research was supported (M.E.M. and J.B.A.) by the NOAA- and NSF-supported ‘Earth Systems History’ programme and the NCAR-Early Career Scientist Assembly (C.M.A.). We thank R. S. Bradley for his support of C.M.A. during early stages of this work, R. E. Davis for suggestions with respect to the statistical procedure, and A. Robock and K. Trenberth for comments on the manuscript. The National Center for Atmospheric Research is sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

Author information

Correspondence to J. Brad Adams.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information and Tables (DOC 171 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Further reading

Figure 1: Long-term behaviour of ENSO.
Figure 2: Reconstructed, cold-season NINO3 SEA results.


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.