Abstract

The El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is the leading mode of interannual climate variability. However, it is unclear how ENSO has responded to external forcing, particularly orbitally induced changes in the amplitude of the seasonal cycle during the Holocene. Here we present a reconstruction of seasonal and interannual surface conditions in the tropical Pacific Ocean from a network of high-resolution coral and mollusc records that span discrete intervals of the Holocene. We identify several intervals of reduced variance in the 2 to 7 yr ENSO band that are not in phase with orbital changes in equatorial insolation, with a notable 64% reduction between 5,000 and 3,000 years ago. We compare the reconstructed ENSO variance and seasonal cycle with that simulated by nine climate models that include orbital forcing, and find that the models do not capture the timing or amplitude of ENSO variability, nor the mid-Holocene increase in seasonality seen in the observations; moreover, a simulated inverse relationship between the amplitude of the seasonal cycle and ENSO-related variance in sea surface temperatures is not found in our reconstructions. We conclude that the tropical Pacific climate is highly variable and subject to millennial scale quiescent periods. These periods harbour no simple link to orbital forcing, and are not adequately simulated by the current generation of models.

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Acknowledgements

We acknowledge the World Climate Research Program’s Working Group on Coupled Modelling, which is responsible for CMIP, and we thank the PMIP3 modelling groups for producing and making available their model output. The US Department of Energy’s Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison provides coordinating support for CMIP, and led development of software infrastructure in partnership with the Global Organization for Earth System Science Portals. J.E.-G. acknowledges support from US NSF grant DMS 1025465. K.M.C. acknowledges support from NOAA award NA11OAR4310166 and NSF award OCE-0752091. M.Collins acknowledges support from UK NERC grant NE/H009957/1. H.V.M. and A.T. acknowledge support from Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Project grant DP1092945. H.V.M. is supported by an ARC Future Fellowship FT140100286 grant. A.T. acknowledges support from UK NERC grant NE/H009957/1. T.C. thanks M. McCulloch (formerly at ANU) for dating the Bayes coral, and M. Gagan’s team at ANU for help with isotopic measurements. The Bayes 1 core was collected with funds from the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement. B.S. was supported by the DFG Cluster of Excellence ‘The Future Ocean’ (EXC 80/2). P.B., M.Carré, T.C., J.L., M.E. and A.T. were supported by the French National Research Agency under EL PASO grant (no. 2010 298 BLANC 608 01). This project also serves for coordination and implementation of the PMIP3/CMIP5 simulations on the ESGF distributed database. We thank J.-Y. Peterschmitt for his help with the PMIP database. This work was initiated in a workshop co-sponsored by WCRP/CLIVAR, IGBP/PAGES, INQUA and IPSL in 2011.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Department of Earth Sciences, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California 90089, USA

    • J. Emile-Geay
    •  & Y. Zhou
  2. School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, Georgia 30332, USA

    • K. M. Cobb
  3. Institut des Sciences de l’Evolution, Université de Montpellier, CNRS, IRD, EPHE, Montpellier 34095, France

    • M. Carré
  4. IPSL/LSCE, unité mixte CEA-CNRS-UVSQ, Gif sur Yvette 91191, France

    • P. Braconnot
  5. Sorbonne Universités, UPMC Univ. Paris 6, LOCEAN/IPSL, UMR 7159, CNRS-IRD-MNHN, 75005 Paris, France

    • J. Leloup
  6. Centre for Past Climate Change and School of Archaeology, Geography and Environmental Sciences (SAGES), University of Reading, Whiteknights, Reading RG6 6AB, UK

    • S. P. Harrison
  7. Université Bordeaux, UMR CNRS 5805 EPOC, Allee Geoffroy St Hilaire, 33615 Pessac cedex, France

    • T. Corrège
  8. School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Wollongong, Wollongong, New South Wales 2522, Australia

    • H. V. McGregor
  9. College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences, University of Exeter, Laver Building, North Park Road, Exeter EX4 4QE, UK

    • M. Collins
  10. University of Edinburgh, School of GeoSciences, James Hutton Road, Edinburgh EH9 3FE, UK

    • R. Driscoll
    •  & A. Tudhope
  11. Paleoclimats Paleoenvironnements Bioindicateurs, Université de Nantes, LPGNantes, 2 rue de la Houssinière, Nantes 44300, France

    • M. Elliot
  12. Institut für Geowissenschaften, Universität Kiel, D-24118 Kiel, Germany

    • B. Schneider

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Contributions

J.E.G. designed the study, performed the analysis, led the writing, and prepared the manuscript. P.B. coordinated the synthesis. M.Carré, K.M.C., T.C., M.E. and R.D. contributed data and/or analysis. P.B. and J.L. analysed simulations and contributed to writing. Y.Z. processed PMIP3 output and generated some of the supplementary figures. A.T., B.S. and M.Collins provided input in the analysis and interpretation. J.E.G., K.M.C., M.Carré, S.P.H., H.V.M., T.C., P.B. and A.T. wrote the paper. All authors reviewed the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to J. Emile-Geay.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2608

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