Higher frequency of Central Pacific El Niño events in recent decades relative to past centuries


El Niño events differ substantially in their spatial pattern and intensity. Canonical Eastern Pacific El Niño events have sea surface temperature anomalies that are strongest in the far eastern equatorial Pacific, whereas peak ocean warming occurs further west during Central Pacific El Niño events. The event types differ in their impacts on the location and intensity of temperature and precipitation anomalies globally. Evidence is emerging that Central Pacific El Niño events have become more common, a trend that is projected by some studies to continue with ongoing climate change. Here we identify spatial and temporal patterns in observed sea surface temperatures that distinguish the evolution of Eastern and Central Pacific El Niño events in the tropical Pacific. We show that these patterns are recorded by a network of 27 seasonally resolved coral records, which we then use to reconstruct Central and Eastern Pacific El Niño activity for the past four centuries. We find a simultaneous increase in Central Pacific events and a decrease in Eastern Pacific events since the late twentieth century that leads to a ratio of Central to Eastern Pacific events that is unusual in a multicentury context. Compared to the past four centuries, the most recent 30 year period includes fewer, but more intense, Eastern Pacific El Niño events.

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Fig. 1: El Niño diversity in instrumental and coral data for EP El Niño (left column) and CP El Niño (right column).
Fig. 2: Seasonal distinction of EP and CP El Niño events.
Fig. 3: Reconstruction of seasonal El Niño indices.
Fig. 4: El Niño event diversity over the past four centuries.

Data availability

The proxy records with persistent identifier (doi/URL) are listed in Supplementary Table 4. Primary input data are archived by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Reconstructions are archived at https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/paleo/study/26270. Additional information and datasets are available at: https://figshare.com/s/0cc010d38b66eb3e7975.

Code availability

The code associated with this paper is available on request from M.B.F.


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M.B.F., B.J.H, D.J.K. and D.D. were supported by the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science (CE110001028). B.J.H. is supported through an ARC Linkage Project (LP150100062). B.J.H, N.J.A. and D.D. are supported by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes (CE170100023). H.V.M. acknowledges support from ARC Future Fellowship (FT140100286). N.J.A. acknowledges support from ARC Future Fellowship (FT160100029). D.J.K. is supported by the Earth Systems and Climate Change Hub in the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Program.

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M.B.F. conceived and designed the study, with input from B.J.H. and D.J.K. M.B.F. led the development of the methods, the analysis and the writing of the manuscript. Expert contributions and oversight came from B.J.H., D.J.K., H.V.M., N.J.A. and D.D. All the authors contributed to discussions that shaped the study and the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Mandy B. Freund.

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Freund, M.B., Henley, B.J., Karoly, D.J. et al. Higher frequency of Central Pacific El Niño events in recent decades relative to past centuries. Nat. Geosci. 12, 450–455 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-019-0353-3

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