Abstract

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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Acknowledgements

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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Affiliations

  1. CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research, Aspendale, Victoria 3195, Australia

    • Wenju Cai
    • , Simon Borlace
    • , Peter van Rensch
    •  & Guojian Wang
  2. Physical Oceanography Laboratory, Qingdao Collaborative Innovation Center of Marine Science and Technology, Ocean University of China, Qingdao 266003, China

    • Wenju Cai
    • , Lixin Wu
    •  & Guojian Wang
  3. Laboratoire d’Océanographie et du Climat: Expérimentation et Approches Numériques (LOCEAN), IRD/UPMC/CNRS/MNHN, 75252 Paris Cedex 05, France

    • Matthieu Lengaigne
    •  & Eric Guilyardi
  4. College of Engineering Mathematics and Physical Sciences, Harrison Building, Streatham Campus, University of Exeter, Exeter EX1 3PB, UK

    • Mat Collins
  5. Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory/NOAA, Princeton, New Jersey 08540-6649, USA

    • Gabriel Vecchi
  6. IPRC, Department of Oceanography, SOEST, University of Hawaii, Honolulu, Hawaii 96822, USA

    • Axel Timmermann
  7. Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science, Level 4 Mathews Building, The University of New South Wales, Sydney 2052, Australia

    • Agus Santoso
    •  & Matthew H. England
  8. NOAA/Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, Seattle, Washington 98115, USA

    • Michael J. McPhaden
  9. NCAS-Climate, University of Reading, Reading RG6 6BB, UK

    • Eric Guilyardi
  10. Department of Meteorology, SOEST, University of Hawaii, Honolulu, Hawaii 96822, USA

    • Fei-Fei Jin

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Contributions

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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Wenju Cai.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2100

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