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Increasing frequency of extreme El Niño events due to greenhouse warming


El Niño events are a prominent feature of climate variability with global climatic impacts. The 1997/98 episode, often referred to as ‘the climate event of the twentieth century’1,2, and the 1982/83 extreme El Niño3, featured a pronounced eastward extension of the west Pacific warm pool and development of atmospheric convection, and hence a huge rainfall increase, in the usually cold and dry equatorial eastern Pacific. Such a massive reorganization of atmospheric convection, which we define as an extreme El Niño, severely disrupted global weather patterns, affecting ecosystems4,5, agriculture6, tropical cyclones, drought, bushfires, floods and other extreme weather events worldwide3,7,8,9. Potential future changes in such extreme El Niño occurrences could have profound socio-economic consequences. Here we present climate modelling evidence for a doubling in the occurrences in the future in response to greenhouse warming. We estimate the change by aggregating results from climate models in the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project phases 3 (CMIP3; ref. 10) and 5 (CMIP5; ref. 11) multi-model databases, and a perturbed physics ensemble12. The increased frequency arises from a projected surface warming over the eastern equatorial Pacific that occurs faster than in the surrounding ocean waters13,14, facilitating more occurrences of atmospheric convection in the eastern equatorial region.

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Figure 1: Evolution and nonlinear characteristics of observed extreme El Niño events.
Figure 2: Evolution and nonlinear characteristics of model extreme El Niño events, and changes in occurrences under greenhouse warming.
Figure 3: Multi-model statistics associated with the increase in the frequency of extreme El Niño events.
Figure 4: Schematic depicting the mechanism for increased occurrences of extreme El Niño under greenhouse warming.

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W.C., S.B. and P.v.R. are supported by the Australian Climate Change Science Program. W.C. is also supported by Goyder Research Institute, the CSIRO Office of Chief Executive Science Leader award, and Pacific Australia Climate Change Science Adaptation Programme. M.J.M. is supported by NOAA; PMEL contribution 4049. M.C. is supported by the NERC SAPRISE project (NE/I022841/1); A.T. is supported by NSF grant number 1049219; M.H.E. and A.S., by a grant under the ARC Laureate Fellowship scheme (FL100100214); L.W. by China National Natural Science Foundation Key Project(41130859); and E.G. by Agence Nationale pour la Recherche projects ANR-10-Blanc-616 METRO.

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W.C. conceived the study in discussion with M.L. and G.V., and wrote the initial draft of the paper. S.B., P.v.R. and G.W. 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 dynamics, and improvement of this paper.

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Correspondence to Wenju Cai.

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Cai, W., Borlace, S., Lengaigne, M. et al. Increasing frequency of extreme El Niño events due to greenhouse warming. Nature Clim Change 4, 111–116 (2014).

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