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Interdecadal modulation of El Niño amplitude during the past millennium


The El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is the dominant mode of interannual climate variability on Earth, alternating between anomalously warm (El Niño) and cold (La Niña) conditions in the tropical Pacific at intervals of 2–8 years1,2. The amplitude of ENSO variability affects the occurrence and predictability of climate extremes around the world3,4, but our ability to detect and predict changes in ENSO amplitude is limited by the fact that the instrumental record is too short to characterize its natural variability5,6,7,8. Here we use the North American Drought Atlas9,10—a database of drought reconstructions based on tree-ring records—to produce a continuous, annually resolved record of ENSO variability over the past 1,100 years. Our record is in broad agreement with independent, ENSO-sensitive proxy records in the Pacific and surrounding regions. Together, these records indicate that ENSO amplitude exhibits a quasi-regular cycle of 50–90 years that is closely coupled to the tropical Pacific mean state. Anomalously warm conditions in the eastern Pacific are associated with enhanced ENSO variability, consistent with model simulations11. The quasi-periodic ENSO amplitude modulation reported here offers a key observational constraint for improving models and their prediction of ENSO behaviour linked to global warming.

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Figure 1: The leading EOF pattern of NADA, its PC series and correlation of the PC series with tropical records.
Figure 2: Comparison of records of ENSO variance.
Figure 3: Spectral property of the NADA-derived ENSO variance series.
Figure 4: Comparison of the NADA-derived ENSO variance series with records of the tropical Pacific mean state.


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We gratefully acknowledge the researchers who have contributed their tree-ring data for NADA development. This research was funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology, the National Basic Research Program of China (2011CB309704), and the National Science Foundation of China (No.40890155). This is a International Pacific Research Center/School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology Contribution (774/8128) and a Lamont–Doherty Earth Observatory Contribution (7462).

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J.L., S-P.X. and E.R.C. contributed to data analysis. J.L., S-P.X., E.R.C., G.H., and R.D. contributed to writing the paper. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Jinbao Li.

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Li, J., Xie, SP., Cook, E. et al. Interdecadal modulation of El Niño amplitude during the past millennium. Nature Clim Change 1, 114–118 (2011).

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