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Evolution and forcing mechanisms of El Niño over the past 21,000 years

Nature volume 515, pages 550553 (27 November 2014) | Download Citation


The El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is Earth’s dominant source of interannual climate variability, but its response to global warming remains highly uncertain1. To improve our understanding of ENSO’s sensitivity to external climate forcing, it is paramount to determine its past behaviour by using palaeoclimate data and model simulations. Palaeoclimate records show that ENSO has varied considerably since the Last Glacial Maximum (21,000 years ago)2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9, and some data sets suggest a gradual intensification of ENSO over the past 6,000 years2,5,7,8. Previous attempts to simulate the transient evolution of ENSO have relied on simplified models10 or snapshot11,12,13 experiments. Here we analyse a series of transient Coupled General Circulation Model simulations forced by changes in greenhouse gasses, orbital forcing, the meltwater discharge and the ice-sheet history throughout the past 21,000 years. Consistent with most palaeo-ENSO reconstructions, our model simulates an orbitally induced strengthening of ENSO during the Holocene epoch, which is caused by increasing positive ocean–atmosphere feedbacks. During the early deglaciation, ENSO characteristics change drastically in response to meltwater discharges and the resulting changes in the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation and equatorial annual cycle. Increasing deglacial atmospheric CO2 concentrations tend to weaken ENSO, whereas retreating glacial ice sheets intensify ENSO. The complex evolution of forcings and ENSO feedbacks and the uncertainties in the reconstruction further highlight the challenge and opportunity for constraining future ENSO responses.

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This work is supported by the US National Science Foundation (NSF)/P2C2 Program, Chinese NSFC41130105, the US Department of Energy/Office of Science (BER), Chinese MOST2012CB955200, NSF1049219 and 1204011. The computation is carried out at Oak Ridge National Laboratory of the Department of Energy and the National Center for Atmospheric Research supercomputing facility.

Author information


  1. Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences and Nelson Center for Climatic Research, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wisconsin 53706, USA

    • Zhengyu Liu
  2. Laboratory of Climate, Ocean and Atmosphere Studies, School of Physics, Peking University, Beijing, 100871, China

    • Zhengyu Liu
    • , Zhengyao Lu
    •  & Xinyu Wen
  3. Climate and Global Dynamics Division, National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado 80307-3000, USA

    • B. L. Otto-Bliesner
  4. International Pacific Research Center and Department of Oceanography, School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, University of Hawaii at Manoa, Honolulu, Hawaii 96822, USA

    • A. Timmermann
  5. School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, Georgia 30332, USA

    • K. M. Cobb


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Z. Liu conceived the study and wrote the paper. Z. Lu and XW performed the analysis. Z. Liu and B.O.B. contributed to the simulations. A.T. and K.C. contributed to the interpretation. All authors discussed the results and provided inputs to the paper.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Correspondence to Zhengyu Liu.

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