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El Niño in a changing climate

An Erratum to this article was published on 03 December 2009


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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Figure 1: Deviations of mean SST for the two characteristics of El Niño from the 1854–2006 climatology.
Figure 2: Deviations for the two characteristics of El Niño from their climatology.
Figure 3: The CP-El Niño/EP-El Niño occurrence ratio.
Figure 4: The ensemble mean thermocline depth.

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We acknowledge the international modelling groups for providing their data and PCMDI and the IPCC Data Archive at LLNL/DOE for collecting, archiving and making the data readily available. S.-W.Y. and J.-S.K. are supported by KORDI (grants PE98401, PP00720). B.D. benefited from funding from the PCCC project (Peru Chile Climate Change) of the ANR (Agence Nationale de la Recherche). J.-S. K. and F.-F. J. are also supported by NSF grants ATM 060552 and AMT 065145 and NOAA grant GC01-229.

Author Contributions S.-W.Y., M.K. and J.-S.K. contributed to analysis. S.-W.Y., J.-S.K., B.D, B.P.K. and F.-F.J. contributed to writing the paper. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Sang-Wook Yeh.

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Yeh, SW., Kug, JS., Dewitte, B. et al. El Niño in a changing climate. Nature 461, 511–514 (2009).

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