Increasing frequency of extreme El Niño events due to greenhouse warming

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.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from$8.99

All prices are NET prices.

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.

References

  1. 1

    Changnon, S. A. El Niño, 1997–1998: The Climate Event of the Century (Oxford Univ. Press, 2000).

    Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    McPhaden, M. J. El Niño: The child prodigy of 1997–98. Nature 398, 559–562 (1999).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    Philander, S. G. H. Anomalous El Niño of 1982–83. Nature 305, 16 (1983).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4

    Glynn, P. W. & de Weerdt, W. H. Elimination of two reef-building hydrocorals following the 1982–83 El Niño. Science 253, 69–71 (1991).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    Aronson, R. B. et al. Coral bleach-out in Belize. Nature 405, 36 (2000).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6

    Wilhite, D. A., Wood, D. A. & Meyer, S. J. in Climate Crisis (eds Glantz, M., Katz, R. & Krenz, M.) 75–78 (UNEP, 1987).

    Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    Vos, R., Velasco, M. & Edgar de Labastida, R. Economic and social effects of El Niño in Ecuador, 1997–1998 (Inter-American Development Bank, Sustainable Development Dept. Technical papers series POV-107, 1999).

  8. 8

    Vincent, E. M. et al. Interannual variability of the South Pacific Convergence Zone and implications for tropical cyclone genesis. Clim. Dynam. 36, 1881–1896 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9

    Cai, W. et al. More extreme swings of the South Pacific convergence zone due to greenhouse warming. Nature 488, 365–369 (2012).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    Meehl, G. et al. The WCRP CMIP3 multimodel dataset: A new era in climate change research. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 88, 1383–1394 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11

    Taylor, K. E., Stouffer, R. J. & Meehl, G. A. An overview of CMIP5 and the experimental design. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 93, 485–498 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    Collins, M. et al. A comparison of perturbed physics and multi-model ensembles: Model errors, feedbacks and forcings. Clim. Dynam. 36, 1737–1766 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    Xie, S. P. et al. Global warming pattern formation: Sea surface temperature and rainfall. J. Clim. 23, 966–986 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    Tokinaga, H., Xie, S-P., Deser, C., Kosaka, Y. & Okumura, Y. M. Slowdown of the Walker circulation driven by tropical Indo-Pacific warming. Nature 491, 439–443 (2012).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    Valle, C. A. et al. The Impact of the 1982–1983 E1 Niño-Southern Oscillation on Seabirds in the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador. J. Geophys. Res. 92, 14437–14444 (1987).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    Merlen, G. The 1982–1983 El Niño: Some of its consequences for Galapagos wildlife. Oryx 18, 210–214 (1984).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17

    Sponberg, K. Compendium of Climatological Impacts, University Corporation for Atmospheric Research Vol. 1 (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Office of Global Programs, 1999).

  18. 18

    Timmermann, A. et al. Increased El Niño frequency in a climate model forced by future greenhouse warming. Nature 398, 694–697 (1999).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19

    Collins, M. et al. The impact of global warming on the tropical Pacific Ocean and El Niño. Nature Geosci. 3, 391–397 (2010).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    Yeh, S-W. et al. El Niño in a changing climate. Nature 461, 511–514 (2009).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21

    Kug, J-S., An, S. I., Ham, Y. G. & Kang, I-S. Changes in El Niño and La Niña teleconnection over North Pacific–America in the global warming simulations. Theor. Appl. Climatol. 100, 275–282 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. 22

    Rayner, N. A. et al. Global analyses of sea surface temperature, sea ice, and night marine air temperature since the late nineteenth century. J. Geophys. Res. 108, 4407 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23

    Adler, R. F. et al. The Version-2 Global Precipitation Climatology Project (GPCP) Monthly Precipitation Analysis (1979–present). J. Hydrometeorol. 4, 1147–1167 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24

    Ashok, K., Behera, S. K., Rao, S. A., Weng, H. & Yamagata, T. El Niño Modoki and its possible teleconnection. J. Geophys. Res. 112, C11007 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25

    Lengaigne, M. & Vecchi, G. A. Contrasting the termination of moderate and extreme El Niño events in coupled general circulation models. Clim. Dynam. 35, 299–313 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26

    Chiodi, A. M. & Harrison, D. E. Characterizing warm-ENSO variability in the equatorial Pacific: An OLR perspective. J. Clim. 23, 2428–2439 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. 27

    Austin, P. C. Bootstrap methods for developing predictive models. Am. Stat. 58, 131–137 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. 28

    Kim, D. et al. El Niño–Southern Oscillation sensitivity to cumulus entrainment in a coupled general circulation model. J. Geophys. Res. 116, D22112 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  29. 29

    Johnson, N. C. & Xie, S-P. Changes in the sea surface temperature threshold for tropical convection. Nature Geosci. 3, 842–845 (2010).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  30. 30

    Vecchi, G. A. & Soden, B. J. Global warming and the weakening of the tropical circulation. J. Clim. 20, 4316–4340 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

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.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

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.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Wenju Cai.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

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). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2100

Download citation

Further reading