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Continued increase of extreme El Niño frequency long after 1.5 °C warming stabilization


The Paris Agreement aims to constrain global mean temperature (GMT) increases to 2 °C above pre-industrial levels, with an aspirational target of 1.5 °C. However, the pathway to these targets1,2,3,4,5,6 and the impacts of a 1.5 °C and 2 °C warming on extreme El Niño and La Niña events—which severely influence weather patterns, agriculture, ecosystems, public health and economies7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16—is little known. Here, by analysing climate models participating in the Climate Model Intercomparison Project’s Phase 5 (CMIP5; ref. 17) under a most likely emission scenario1,2, we demonstrate that extreme El Niño frequency increases linearly with the GMT towards a doubling at 1.5 °C warming. This increasing frequency of extreme El Niño events continues for up to a century after GMT has stabilized, underpinned by an oceanic thermocline deepening that sustains faster warming in the eastern equatorial Pacific than the off-equatorial region. Ultimately, this implies a higher risk of extreme El Niño to future generations after GMT rise has halted. On the other hand, whereas previous research suggests extreme La Niña events may double in frequency under the 4.5 °C warming scenario8, the results presented here indicate little to no change under 1.5 °C or 2 °C warming.

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Figure 1: Changes associated with 1.5 °C warming from the pre-industrial level.
Figure 2: Temporal evolution of multi-model ensemble mean changes under the RCP2.6 scenario.
Figure 3: Mechanism for a continuous increase in extreme El Niño frequency after emissions stabilize.


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This work is supported by Centre for Southern Hemisphere Oceans Research. W.C. and G.W. are supported by the Earth Science and Climate Change Hub of the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Programme, and a CSIRO Office of Chief Executive Science Leader award. A.S. is supported by the Earth Science and Climate Change Hub of the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Programme and the Australian Research Council. PMEL contribution 4427.

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W.C. and G.W. conceived the study. G.W. performed all model analysis. W.C. wrote the initial manuscript with support from A.S. and G.W. All authors contributed to interpreting results, discussion of the associated dynamics, and improvement of this paper.

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Correspondence to Wenju Cai or Lixin Wu.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Wang, G., Cai, W., Gan, B. et al. Continued increase of extreme El Niño frequency long after 1.5 °C warming stabilization. Nature Clim Change 7, 568–572 (2017).

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