Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Well-estimated global surface warming in climate projections selected for ENSO phase


The question of how climate model projections have tracked the actual evolution of global mean surface air temperature is important in establishing the credibility of their projections. Some studies and the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report suggest that the recent 15-year period (1998–2012) provides evidence that models are overestimating current temperature evolution. Such comparisons are not evidence against model trends because they represent only one realization where the decadal natural variability component of the model climate is generally not in phase with observations. We present a more appropriate test of models where only those models with natural variability (represented by El Niño/Southern Oscillation) largely in phase with observations are selected from multi-model ensembles for comparison with observations. These tests show that climate models have provided good estimates of 15-year trends, including for recent periods and for Pacific spatial trend patterns.

This is a preview of subscription content

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Model ensemble trends and observational trends.
Figure 2: Running 15-year trends.
Figure 3: Trend histograms.
Figure 4: Model phase-selected trends and observed trends.
Figure 5: Composite sea surface temperature (SST) spatial trends (kelvin per decade).
Figure 6: Model ensemble trends and model phase-selected trends.


  1. Bray, D. & von Storch, H. Prediction or projection: The nomenclature of climate science. Sci. Commun. 30, 534–543 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Peña, M. & Kalnay, E. Separating fast and slow modes in coupled chaotic systems. Nonlinear Proc. Geophys. 11, 319–327 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Yang, S-C., Keppenne, C., Rienecker, M. & Kalnay, E. Application of coupled bred vectors to seasonal-to-interannual forecasting and ocean data assimilation. J. Clim. 22, 2850–2870 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. O’Kane, T., Matear, R., Chamberlain, M. & Oke, P. ENSO regimes and the late 1970s climate shift: The role of synoptic weather and south Pacific ocean spiciness. J. Comput. Phys. 271, 19–38 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

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

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Meehl, G. et al. Decadal prediction: Can it be skillful? Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 90, 1467–1485 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Stocker, T. F. et al. in Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Technical Summary (eds Stocker, T. F. et al.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013).

    Google Scholar 

  8. Tollefson, J. The case of the missing heat. Nature 505, 276–278 (2014).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Lorenz, E. N. Climatic determinism. Meteorol. Monogr. 8, 1–3 (1968).

    Google Scholar 

  10. James, I. & James, P. Ultra-low-frequency variability in a simple atmospheric circulation model. Nature 342, 53–55 (1989).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. O’Kane, T. et al. Decadal variability in an OGCM Southern Ocean: Intrinsic modes, forced modes and metastable states. Ocean Model. 69, 1–21 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Schneider, S. H. & Thompson, S. Atmospheric CO2 and climate: Importance of the transient response. J. Geophys. Res. 86, 3135–3147 (1981).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Meehl, G., Arblaster, J., Fasullo, J., Hu, A. & Trenberth, K. Model-based evidence of deep-ocean heat uptake during surface-temperature hiatus periods. Nature Clim. Change 1, 360–364 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Mantua, N. & Hare, S. The Pacific Decadal Oscillation. J. Oceanogr. 58, 35–44 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Foster, G. & Rahmstorf, S. Global temperature evolution 1979–2010. Environ. Res. Lett. 6, 1–8 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Fyfe, J., Gillett, N. & Zwiers, F. Overestimated global warming over the past 20 years. Nature Clim. Change 3, 767–769 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Cowtan, K. & Way, R. Coverage bias in the HadCRUT4 temperature series and its impact on recent temperature trends. Q. J. R. Meteorol. Soc. doi:10.1002/qj.2297 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Hansen, J., Ruedy, R., Sato, M. & Lo, K. Global surface temperature change. Rev. Geophys. 48, 1–29 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Toth, Z. & Kalnay, E. Ensemble forecasting at NCEP and the breeding method. Mon. Weath. Rev. 125, 3297–3319 (1997).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Meehl, G. et al. Decadal climate prediction: An update from the trenches. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 95, 243–267 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Kosaka, Y. & Xie, S-P. Recent global-warming hiatus tied to equatorial Pacific surface cooling. Nature 501, 403–407 (2013).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  22. England, M. et al. Recent intensification of wind-driven circulation in the Pacific and the ongoing warming hiatus. Nature Clim. Change 4, 222–227 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Schmidt, G., Shindell, D. & Tsigaridis, K. Reconciling warming trends. Nature Geosci. 7, 158–160 (2014).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Trenberth, K. The definition of El Niño. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 78, 2771–2777 (1997).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Brown, J. N., Langlais, C. & Maes, C. Zonal structure and variability of the Western Pacific dynamic warm pool edge in CMIP5. Clim. Dynam. 42, 3061–3076 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Fyfe, J. & Gillett, N. Recent observed and simulated warming. Nature Clim. Change 4, 150–151 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Allen, R., Norris, J. & Wild, M. Evaluation of multidecadal variability in CMIP5 surface solar radiation and inferred underestimation of aerosol direct effects over Europe, China, Japan, and India. J. Geophys. Res. 118, 6311–6336 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Guilyardi, E. et al. Understanding El Niño in ocean–atmosphere general circulation models: Progress and challenges. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 90, 325–340 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Morice, C., Kennedy, J., Rayner, N. & Jones, P. Quantifying uncertainties in global and regional temperature change using an ensemble of observational estimates: The HadCRUT4 data set. J. Geophys. Res. 117, 1–22 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Moss, R. et al. The next generation of scenarios for climate change research and assessment. Nature 463, 747–756 (2010).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Rayner, N. et al. Global analyses of sea surface temperature, sea ice, and night marine air temperature since the late nineteenth century. J. Geophys. Res. 108, 4407–4444 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Kirtman, B. et al. in Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis (eds Stocker, T. F. et al.) Ch. 11, 953–1028 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013).

    Google Scholar 

Download references


This work was financially supported by the Climate Adaptation and Wealth from Oceans Flagships of CSIRO, and the Australian Research Council.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



J.S.R. and S.L. conceived the study and initial experimental design. All authors contributed to experiment design and interpretation. S.L. provided analysis of models and observations. C.L. and D.P.M. analysed Niño3.4 in models. J.S.R. wrote the paper and all authors edited the text.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to James S. Risbey.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Risbey, J., Lewandowsky, S., Langlais, C. et al. Well-estimated global surface warming in climate projections selected for ENSO phase. Nature Clim Change 4, 835–840 (2014).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

Further reading


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing