Letter | Published:

Sea surface temperature variability in the southwest tropical Pacific since AD 1649

Nature Climate Change volume 2, pages 799804 (2012) | Download Citation


A prime focus of research is differentiating the contributions of natural climate variability from those that are anthropogenically forced, especially as it relates to climate prediction1,2,3. The short length of instrumental records, particularly from the South Pacific, hampers this research, specifically for investigations of decadal to centennial scale variability1,4. Here we present a sea surface temperature (SST) reconstruction derived from highly reproducible records of strontium-to-calcium ratios (Sr/Ca) in corals from New Caledonia to investigate natural SST variability in the southwest tropical Pacific from AD 1649–1999. Our results reveal periods of warmer and colder temperatures of the order of decades during the Little Ice Age that do not correspond to long-term variations in solar irradiance or the 11-year sunspot cycle. We suggest that solar variability does not explain decadal to centennial scale SST variability in reconstructions from the southwest tropical Pacific. Our SST reconstruction covaries with the Southern Hemisphere Pacific decadal oscillation5 and the South Pacific decadal oscillation6, from which SST anomalies in the southwest Pacific are linked to precipitation anomalies in the western tropical Pacific6. We find that decadal scale SST variability has changed in strength and periodicity after 1893, suggesting a shift in natural variability for this location.

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Financial support was provided by the Gulf Oceanographic Charitable Trust, the Carl Riggs Endowed Fellowships of the College of Marine Science, the National Science Foundation and Taiwan ROC NSC grants. We thank C. Stephans, B. Linsley and E. Calvo for providing coral data; T. Corrège, T. Ourbak and IRD-ECOP for providing temperature data; C. Folland, N. Mantua, H-H. Hsu and J. Shakun for providing PDV data. We thank E. Goddard for analytical assistance; M. Ghil for MTM software; and C. Torrence and G. Compo for providing the MatLab code for wavelet analysis.

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  1. College of Marine Science, University of South Florida, 140 7th Avenue South, St Petersburg, Florida 33701, USA

    • Kristine L. DeLong
  2. Institute for Geophysics, Jackson School of Geosciences, University of Texas at Austin, J.J. Pickle Research Campus, Building 196, 10100 Burnet Road R2200, Austin, Texas 78758, USA

    • Terrence M. Quinn
    •  & Frederick W. Taylor
  3. Department of Geological Sciences, Jackson School of Geosciences, University of Texas at Austin, 1 University Station C1100, Austin, Texas 78712, USA

    • Terrence M. Quinn
  4. High-Precision Mass Spectrometry and Environment Change Laboratory (HISPEC), Department of Geosciences, National Taiwan University, No. 1, Sec. 4, Roosevelt Road, Taipei 10617, Taiwan

    • Ke Lin
    •  & Chuan-Chou Shen


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K.L.D. completed sample analysis, data analysis and served as primary author. T.M.Q. supervised K.L.D. in sample analysis, data analysis and writing. F.W.T. recovered the coral cores. K.L. carried out 230Th dating supervised by C-C.S., who was involved in writing of the paper.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Correspondence to Kristine L. DeLong or Chuan-Chou Shen.

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