Letter | Published:

Early twentieth-century warming linked to tropical Pacific wind strength

Nature Geoscience volume 8, pages 117121 (2015) | Download Citation


Of the rise in global atmospheric temperature over the past century, nearly 30% occurred between 1910 and 1940 when anthropogenic forcings were relatively weak1. This early warming has been attributed to internal factors, such as natural climate variability in the Atlantic region, and external factors, such as solar variability and greenhouse gas emissions. However, the warming is too large to be explained by external factors alone and it precedes Atlantic warming by over a decade. For the late twentieth century, observations and climate model simulations suggest that Pacific trade winds can modulate global temperatures2,3,4,5,6,7, but instrumental data are scarce in the early twentieth century. Here we present a westerly wind reconstruction (1894–1982) from seasonally resolved measurements of Mn/Ca ratios in a western Pacific coral that tracks interannual to multidecadal Pacific climate variability. We then reconstruct central Pacific temperatures using Sr/Ca ratios in a coral from Jarvis Island, and find that weak trade winds and warm temperatures coincide with rapid global warming from 1910 to 1940. In contrast, winds are stronger and temperatures cooler between 1940 and 1970, when global temperature rise slowed down. We suggest that variations in Pacific wind strength at decadal timescales significantly influence the rate of surface air temperature change.

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We thank M. Price, S. Hlohowskyj, S. Lemieux, C. Hollenbeck and S. Sanchez for support in producing Mn/Ca and Sr/Ca data sets, and S. Worley and J. Comeaux for aid in obtaining weather station data. We are grateful for discussions with J. Overpeck, J. L. Russell, W. Beck, P. DiNezio and C. Deser. This research was supported by the NOAA Climate Program Office (awards NA16RC0082 and NA08OAR4310682), the US NSF (awards OCE-9158496 and EaSM2-1243125), The University of Arizona Department of Geosciences, the Philanthropic Education Organization, UK NERC (Grant NER/GR3/12021), and the Regional and Global Climate Modeling Program of the US-DOE Office of Biological & Environmental Research Cooperative Agreement (DE-FC02-97ER62402).

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Author notes

    • Diane M. Thompson

    Present address: National Center for Atmospheric Research, PO Box 3000, Boulder, Colorado 80307, USA.


  1. Department of Geosciences, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona 85721, USA

    • Diane M. Thompson
    •  & Julia E. Cole
  2. Department of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona 85721, USA

    • Julia E. Cole
  3. Proposal Exponent, Seattle, Washington 98177, USA

    • Glen T. Shen
  4. School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh EH9 3JW, UK

    • Alexander W. Tudhope
  5. Climate & Global Dynamics Division, National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado 80307, USA

    • Gerald A. Meehl


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This study was initially conceived by G.T.S. and J.E.C., and Tarawa Mn/Ca time series data were generated by G.T.S. D.M.T. compiled and analysed Mn/Ca calibration data, and performed quantitative and comparative data analyses. A.W.T. conceived the Jarvis study, with D.M.T., J.E.C. and A.W.T. contributing to sampling, Sr/Ca analysis and interpretation. D.M.T., G.A.M. and J.E.C. led the comparisons of instrumental and palaeodata. D.M.T. and J.E.C. wrote the manuscript, and all authors contributed to discussion, interpretation and editing of the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Diane M. Thompson.

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