Response of El Niño sea surface temperature variability to greenhouse warming

Seon Tae Kim, Wenju Cai, Fei Fei Jin, Agus Santoso, Lixin Wu, Eric Guilyardi, Soon Il An

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

147 Citations (Scopus)


The destructive environmental and socio-economic impacts of the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) demand an improved understanding of how ENSO will change under future greenhouse warming. Robust projected changes in certain aspects of ENSO have been recently established. However, there is as yet no consensus on the change in the magnitude of the associated sea surface temperature (SST) variability, commonly used to represent ENSO amplitude, despite its strong effects on marine ecosystems and rainfall worldwide. Here we show that the response of ENSO SST amplitude is time-varying, with an increasing trend in ENSO amplitude before 2040, followed by a decreasing trend thereafter. We attribute the previous lack of consensus to an expectation that the trend in ENSO amplitude over the entire twenty-first century is unidirectional, and to unrealistic model dynamics of tropical Pacific SST variability. We examine these complex processes across 22 models in the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project phase 5 (CMIP5) database, forced under historical and greenhouse warming conditions. The nine most realistic models identified show a strong consensus on the time-varying response and reveal that the non-unidirectional behaviour is linked to a longitudinal difference in the surface warming rate across the Indo-Pacific basin. Our results carry important implications for climate projections and climate adaptation pathways.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)786-790
Number of pages5
JournalNature Climate Change
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - 2014 Sept 11

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We acknowledge the World Climate Research Programme’s Working Group on Coupled Modelling, which is responsible for CMIP, and we thank the climate modelling groups for producing and making available their model output. For CMIP the US Department of Energy’s Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison provides coordinating support and led development of software infrastructure in partnership with the Global Organization for Earth System Science Portals. S.T.K. is supported by CSIRO Office of Chief Executive and Wealth from Oceans Flagship, and W.C. is supported by the Australian Climate Change Science Program, and a CSIRO Office of Chief Executive Science Leader award. A.S. is supported by the Australian Research Council. S-I.A. is supported by the National Research Foundation of Korea Grant funded by the Korean Government (NRF-2009-C1AAA001-2009-0093042).

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Environmental Science (miscellaneous)
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)


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