Letter

Increased frequency of extreme La Niña events under greenhouse warming

Received:
Accepted:
Published online:

Abstract

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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Acknowledgements

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.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere Flagship, Aspendale, Victoria 3195, Australia

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

    • Wenju Cai
    • , Guojian Wang
    •  & Lixin Wu
  3. 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
  4. NOAA/Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, Seattle, Washington 98115, USA

    • Michael J. McPhaden
  5. Department of Meteorology, SOEST, University of Hawaii, Honolulu, Hawaii 96822, USA

    • Fei-Fei Jin
  6. IPRC, Department of Oceanography, SOEST, University of Hawaii, Honolulu, Hawaii 96822, USA

    • Axel Timmermann
  7. College of Engineering Mathematics and Physical Sciences, Harrison Building, Streatham Campus, University of Exeter, Exeter EX1 3PB, UK

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

    • Gabriel Vecchi
  9. Laboratoire d’Océanographie et du Climat: Expérimentation et Approches Numériques (LOCEAN), IRD/UPMC/CNRS/MNHN, Paris Cedex 05, France

    • Matthieu Lengaigne
    •  & Eric Guilyardi
  10. School of Mathematical Sciences, Monash University, Clayton, Victoria 3800, Australia

    • Dietmar Dommenget
  11. Instituto Geofísico del Perú, Lima 169, Perú

    • Ken Takahashi
  12. NCAS-Climate, University of Reading, Reading RG6 6BB, UK

    • Eric Guilyardi

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Contributions

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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Wenju Cai.

Supplementary information