Projected increase in El Niño-driven tropical cyclone frequency in the Pacific

Abstract

The El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) drives substantial variability in tropical cyclone (TC) activity around the world1,2,3. However, it remains uncertain how the projected future changes in ENSO under greenhouse warming4,5,6,7,8 will affect TC activity, apart from an expectation that the overall frequency of TCs is likely to decrease for most ocean basins9,10,11. Here we show robust changes in ENSO-driven variability in TC occurrence by the late twenty-first century. In particular, we show that TCs become more frequent (20–40%) during future-climate El Niño events compared with present-climate El Niño events—and less frequent during future-climate La Niña events—around a group of small island nations (for example, Fiji, Vanuatu, Marshall Islands and Hawaii) in the Pacific. We examine TCs across 20 models from the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project phase 5 database12, forced under historical and greenhouse warming conditions. The 12 most realistic models identified show a strong consensus on El Niño-driven changes in future-climate large-scale environmental conditions that modulate development of TCs over the off-equatorial western Pacific and the central North Pacific regions. These results have important implications for climate change and adaptation pathways for the vulnerable Pacific island nations.

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Figure 1: Multimodel-mean composites of anisotropic Gaussian TC density estimates for El Niño and La Niña, and their differences (that is, El Niño–La Niña), at every 2.5° × 2.5° grid box over the period 1970–2000.
Figure 2: Projected future changes in TC density.
Figure 3: December–February Southern Hemisphere and July–September Northern Hemisphere mean large-scale variables for present-climate El Niño events, and the direction of projected changes between present-climate and future-climate El Niño events.
Figure 4: Schematic illustration of a mechanism for increased TC formation in the ‘horseshoe-shaped’ region in the western Pacific during future-climate El Niño events compared with the present-climate El Niño events.

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Acknowledgements

This project is supported through funding from the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Programme (NESP). We thank S. Power, A. Dowdy, M. Wheeler and E. Ebert from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology for their valuable feedback. S.S.C. also thanks P. Vamplew and colleagues at Federation University Australia for their comments on this work.

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S.S.C. conceived and designed the study in discussion with K.J.T. and K.J.E.W., and wrote the initial draft of the paper. S.S.C., K.J.T. and H.Y. performed the analysis. All authors contributed to interpreting results, discussion of the associated dynamics, and improvement of this paper.

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Correspondence to Savin S. Chand.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Chand, S., Tory, K., Ye, H. et al. Projected increase in El Niño-driven tropical cyclone frequency in the Pacific. Nature Clim Change 7, 123–127 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate3181

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