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


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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Correspondence to Wenju Cai.

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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).

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