Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

More extreme swings of the South Pacific convergence zone due to greenhouse warming

Abstract

The South Pacific convergence zone (SPCZ) is the Southern Hemisphere’s most expansive and persistent rain band, extending from the equatorial western Pacific Ocean southeastward towards French Polynesia1,2. Owing to its strong rainfall gradient, a small displacement in the position of the SPCZ causes drastic changes to hydroclimatic conditions and the frequency of extreme weather events—such as droughts, floods and tropical cyclones—experienced by vulnerable island countries in the region1,2,3,4,5,6,7. The SPCZ position varies from its climatological mean location with the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO), moving a few degrees northward during moderate El Niño events and southward during La Niña events2,5,6. During strong El Niño events, however, the SPCZ undergoes an extreme swing—by up to ten degrees of latitude toward the Equator—and collapses to a more zonally oriented structure5 with commensurately severe weather impacts5,8,9,10,11. Understanding changes in the characteristics of the SPCZ in a changing climate is therefore of broad scientific and socioeconomic interest. Here we present climate modelling evidence for a near doubling in the occurrences of zonal SPCZ events between the periods 1891–1990 and 1991–2090 in response to greenhouse warming, even in the absence of a consensus on how ENSO will change12,13,14. We estimate the increase in zonal SPCZ events from an aggregation of the climate models in the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project phases 3 and 5 (CMIP315 and CMIP5) multi-model database that are able to simulate such events. The change is caused by a projected enhanced equatorial warming in the Pacific16 and may lead to more frequent occurrences of extreme events across the Pacific island nations most affected by zonal SPCZ events.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

$32.00

All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Principal variability patterns of observed rainfall and their nonlinear relationship.
Figure 2: Multi-model ensemble average of the principal variability patterns of rainfall and their nonlinear relationship from eight CMIP3 CGCMs that are able to produce the nonlinear relationship.
Figure 3: Multi-model composites of the circulation fields associated with zonal SPCZ events.
Figure 4: Multi-model statistics associated with the increase in frequency of zonal SPCZ events.

References

  1. Kiladis, G. N., Storch, H. V. & Loon, H. V. Origin of the South Pacific Convergence Zone. J. Clim. 2, 1185–1195 (1989)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  2. Vincent, D. G. The south Pacific convergence zone (SPCZ): a review. Mon. Weath. Rev. 122, 1949–1970 (1994)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  3. Salinger, M. J., Renwick, J. A. & Mullan, A. B. Interdecadal Pacific oscillation and South Pacific climate. Int. J. Climatol. 21, 1705–1721 (2001)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Kumar, V. V., Deo, R. C. & Ramachandran, V. Total rain accumulation and rain-rate analysis for small tropical Pacific islands: a case study of Suva, Fiji. Atmos. Sci. Lett. 7, 53–58 (2006)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  5. Vincent, E. M. et al. Interannual variability of the South Pacific Convergence Zone and implications for tropical cyclone genesis. Clim. Dyn. 36, 1881–1896 (2011)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Folland, C. K., Renwick, J. A., Salinger, M. J. & Mullan, A. B. Relative influence of the interdecadal Pacific oscillation and ENSO on the South Pacific Convergence Zone. Geophys. Res. Lett.. 29, 1643, http://dx.doi.org/10.1029/2001GL014201 (2002)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  7. Hennessy, K. Power, S. & Cambers, G. (eds) Climate Change in the Pacific: Scientific Assessment and New Research Vol. 1, Regional Overview; Vol. 2, Country Reports (Australian Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO, 2011)

    Google Scholar 

  8. Barnett, J. Dangerous climate change in Pacific Islands: food production and food security. Reg. Environ. Change 11, 229–237 (2011)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Glynn, P. Widespread coral mortality and the 1982–83 El Niño warming event. Environ. Conserv. 11, 133–146 (1984)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Hoegh-Guldberg, O. Climate change, coral beaching and the future of the world’s coral reefs. Mar. Freshwat. Res. 50, 839–866 (1999)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Mumby, P. J. et al. Unprecedented bleaching-induced mortality in Porites spp. at Rangiroa Atoll, French Polynesia. Mar. Biol. 139, 183–189 (2001)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Guilyardi, E. et al. Understanding El Niño in ocean–atmosphere general circulation models: progress and challenges. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 90, 325–340 (2009)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  13. Collins, M. et al. The impact of global warming on the tropical Pacific Ocean and El Niño. Nature Geosci. 3, 391–397 (2010)

    Article  CAS  ADS  Google Scholar 

  14. Ashok, K., Sabin, T. P., Swapna, P. & Murtugudde, R. G. Is a global warming signature emerging in the tropical Pacific? Geophys. Res. Lett. 39, L02701, http://dx.doi.org/10.1029/2011GL050232 (2012)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  15. Meehl, G. et al. The WCRP CMIP3 multimodel dataset: a new era in climate change research. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 88, 1383–1394 (2007)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  16. Xie, S. P. et al. Global warming pattern formation: sea surface temperature and rainfall. J. Clim. 23, 966–986 (2010)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  17. Takahashi, K. & Battisti, D. S. Processes controlling the mean tropical Pacific precipitation pattern. Part II: the SPCZ and the southeast Pacific dry zone. J. Clim. 20, 5696–5706 (2007)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  18. Lehodey, P., Bertignac, M., Hampton, J., Lewis, A. & Picaut, J. El Niño Southern Oscillation and tuna in the western Pacific. Nature 389, 715–718 (1997)

    Article  CAS  ADS  Google Scholar 

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

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  20. Vecchi, G. A. et al. Weakening of tropical Pacific atmospheric circulation due to anthropogenic forcing. Nature 441, 73–76 (2006)

    Article  CAS  ADS  Google Scholar 

  21. Yeh, S.-W. et al. El Niño in a changing climate. Nature 461, 511–514 (2009)

    Article  CAS  ADS  Google Scholar 

  22. Ashok, K., Behera, S. K., Rao, S. A., Weng, H. & Yamagata, T. El Niño Modoki and its possible teleconnection. J. Geophys. Res.. 112, C11007, http://dx.doi.org/10.1029/2006JC003798 (2007)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  23. Brown, J. R., Moise, A. F. & Delage, F. P. Changes in the South Pacific Convergence Zone in IPCC AR4 future climate projections. Clim. Dyn. 39, 1–19 (2012)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Lorenz, E. N. Empirical Orthogonal Functions and Statistical Weather Prediction (Statistical Forecast Project Rep. 1, Department of Meteorology, MIT, 1956)

    Google Scholar 

  25. Adler, R. F. et al. The version 2 Global Precipitation Climatology Project (GPCP) monthly precipitation analysis (1979-present). J. Hydrometeorol. 4, 1147–1167 (2003)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  26. Austin, P. C. Bootstrap methods for developing predictive models. Am. Stat. 58, 131–137 (2004)

    Article  MathSciNet  Google Scholar 

  27. Spencer, H. Role of the atmosphere in seasonal phase locking of El Niño. Geophys. Res. Lett. 31, L24104, http://dx.doi.org/10.1029/2004GL021619 (2004)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  28. Lengaigne, M., Boulanger, J. P., Menkes, C. & Spencer, H. Influence of the seasonal cycle on the termination of El Niño events in a coupled general circulation model. J. Clim. 19, 1850–1868 (2006)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  29. Liu, Z., Vavrus, S., He, F., Wen, N. & Zhong, Y. Rethinking tropical ocean response to global warming: the enhanced equatorial warming. J. Clim. 18, 4684–4700 (2005)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  30. Timmermann, A., McGregor, S. & Jin, F.-F. Wind effects on past and future regional sea level trends in the southern Indo-Pacific. J. Clim. 23, 4429–4437 (2010)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

This work was supported by the Australian Climate Change Science Program, CSIRO Office of Chief Executive Science Leader programme, and the Pacific-Australia Climate Change Science and Adaptation Planning Program. A.T. and M.J.W. were supported by the Office of Science (BER) US Department of Energy, grant DE-FG02-07ER64469, the US National Science Foundation under grant 1049219 and by the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC). M.J.M. was supported by NOAA and by CSIRO as a visiting scholar. M.L., C.M. and E.M.V. were supported by the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD). This is PMEL contribution number 3830.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

W.C. and M.L. conceived the study, directed the analysis and wrote the initial draft of the paper. S.B. performed the analysis. M.C. conducted the perturbed physics ensemble climate change experiments with the HadCM3 model. All authors contributed to interpreting results, discussion of the associated statistical significance, and improvement of the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Wenju Cai.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Figures 1-10, Supplementary Tables 1-5 and Supplementary References. (PDF 1190 kb)

PowerPoint slides

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Cai, W., Lengaigne, M., Borlace, S. et al. More extreme swings of the South Pacific convergence zone due to greenhouse warming. Nature 488, 365–369 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature11358

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/nature11358

This article is cited by

Comments

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.

Search

Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing