Increased frequency of extreme La Niña events under greenhouse warming


The El Niño/Southern Oscillation is Earth’s most prominent source of interannual climate variability, alternating irregularly between El Niño and La Niña, and resulting in global disruption of weather patterns, ecosystems, fisheries and agriculture1,2,3,4,5. The 1998–1999 extreme La Niña event that followed the 1997–1998 extreme El Niño event6 switched extreme El Niño-induced severe droughts to devastating floods in western Pacific countries, and vice versa in the southwestern United States4,7. During extreme La Niña events, cold sea surface conditions develop in the central Pacific8,9, creating an enhanced temperature gradient from the Maritime continent to the central Pacific. Recent studies have revealed robust changes in El Niño characteristics in response to simulated future greenhouse warming10,11,12, but how La Niña will change remains unclear. Here we present climate modelling evidence, from simulations conducted for the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project phase 5 (ref. 13), for a near doubling in the frequency of future extreme La Niña events, from one in every 23 years to one in every 13 years. This occurs because projected faster mean warming of the Maritime continent than the central Pacific, enhanced upper ocean vertical temperature gradients, and increased frequency of extreme El Niño events are conducive to development of the extreme La Niña events. Approximately 75% of the increase occurs in years following extreme El Niño events, thus projecting more frequent swings between opposite extremes from one year to the next.

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Figure 1: Identification of observed extreme La Niña events.
Figure 2: Identification of model extreme La Niña events using 21 selected models.
Figure 3: Multi-model statistics in August–December associated with the increase in frequency of extreme La Niña events.
Figure 4: Relationship between detrended Niño4 rainfall and Niño4 SST.


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W.C. and G.W. are supported by the Australian Climate Change Science Program and a CSIRO Office of Chief Executive Science Leader award. A.S. and M.H.E. are supported by the Australian Research Council. D.D. is supported by ARC project ‘Beyond the linear dynamics of the El Niño–Southern Oscillation’ (DP120101442) and ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science (CE110001028). M.C. was supported by NERC/MoES SAPRISE project (NE/I022841/1). M.J.M. was supported by NOAA, and this is PMEL contribution number 4259.

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W.C. conceived the study, directed the analysis, and wrote the initial version of the paper in discussion with G.W. and A.S. G.W. performed the model output analysis. A.S. conducted and wrote the description of the heat budget analysis in the Supplementary Information. 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., Wang, G., Santoso, A. et al. Increased frequency of extreme La Niña events under greenhouse warming. Nature Clim Change 5, 132–137 (2015).

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