Letter | Published:

El Niño modulations over the past seven centuries

Nature Climate Change volume 3, pages 822826 (2013) | Download Citation


Predicting how the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) will change with global warming is of enormous importance to society1,2,3,4. ENSO exhibits considerable natural variability at interdecadal–centennial timescales5. Instrumental records are too short to determine whether ENSO has changed6 and existing reconstructions are often developed without adequate tropical records. Here we present a seven-century-long ENSO reconstruction based on 2,222 tree-ring chronologies from both the tropics and mid-latitudes in both hemispheres. The inclusion of tropical records enables us to achieve unprecedented accuracy, as attested by high correlations with equatorial Pacific corals7,8 and coherent modulation of global teleconnections that are consistent with an independent Northern Hemisphere temperature reconstruction9. Our data indicate that ENSO activity in the late twentieth century was anomalously high over the past seven centuries, suggestive of a response to continuing global warming. Climate models disagree on the ENSO response to global warming3,4, suggesting that many models underestimate the sensitivity to radiative perturbations. Illustrating the radiative effect, our reconstruction reveals a robust ENSO response to large tropical eruptions, with anomalous cooling in the east-central tropical Pacific in the year of eruption, followed by anomalous warming one year after. Our observations provide crucial constraints for improving climate models and their future projections.

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We thank the researchers who have contributed their tree-ring data for MADA and NADA development, and W. Soon for helpful discussions on the records of sunspot number. This research was financially supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Basic Research Program of China (2012CB955600), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology, FONDECYT (No.1120965), CONICYT/FONDAP/15110009, CONICET and IAI (CRN2047). This is an International Pacific Research Center/School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology Contribution (987/8948) and a Lamont–Doherty Earth Observatory Contribution (7699).

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  1. Department of Geography, University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

    • Jinbao Li
  2. International Pacific Research Center, University of Hawaii at Manoa, Honolulu, Hawaii 96815, USA

    • Jinbao Li
    • , Shang-Ping Xie
    •  & Nathaniel C. Johnson
  3. Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California at San Diego, La Jolla, California 92093-0230, USA

    • Shang-Ping Xie
  4. Physical Oceanography Laboratory and Ocean–Atmosphere Interaction and Climate Laboratory, Ocean University of China, Qingdao 266100, China

    • Shang-Ping Xie
  5. Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University, Palisades, New York 10964, USA

    • Edward R. Cook
    •  & Rosanne D’Arrigo
  6. Instituto Argentino de Nivologı´a, Glaciologı´a y Ciencias Ambientales (IANIGLA), CCT-CONICET, C.C. 330, 5500 Mendoza, Argentina

    • Mariano S. Morales
  7. Laboratorio de Dendrocronologı´a y Cambio Global, Instituto de Conservación Biodiversidad y Territorio, Facultad de Ciencias Forestales y Recursos Naturales, Universidad Austral de Chile, Casilla 567, Valdivia, Chile

    • Duncan A. Christie
  8. Center for Climate and Resilience Research [CR]2, Casilla 2777, Chile

    • Duncan A. Christie
  9. MOE Key Laboratory of Western China’s Environmental System, Lanzhou University, Lanzhou 730000, China

    • Fahu Chen
    • , Xiaohua Gou
    •  & Keyan Fang
  10. School of Environment, The University of Auckland, Auckland 1020, New Zealand

    • Anthony M. Fowler


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J.L., S-P.X. and E.R.C. designed the research. J.L., S-P.X., M.S.M., D.A.C. and N.C.J. analysed data. J.L., S-P.X. and N.C.J. wrote the paper. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Correspondence to Jinbao Li.

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