Influence of mean climate change on climate variability from a 155-year tropical Pacific coral record

Frank E. Urban, Julia E. Cole, Jonathan T. Overpeck

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

242 Scopus citations


Today, the El Nino/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) system is the primary driver of interannual variability in global climate, but its long-term behaviour is poorly understood. Instrumental observations reveal a shift in 1976 towards warmer and wetter conditions in the tropical Pacific, with widespread climatic and ecological consequences. This shift, unique over the past century, has prompted debate over the influence of increasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases on ENSO variability. Here we present a 155-year ENSO reconstruction from a central tropical Pacific coral that provides new evidence for long-term changes in the regional mean climate and its variability. A gradual transition in the early twentieth century and the abrupt change in 1976, both towards warmer and wetter conditions, co-occur with changes in variability. In the mid-late nineteenth century, cooler and drier background conditions coincided with prominent decadal variability; in the early twentieth century, shorter-period (~2.9 years) variability intensified. After 1920, variability weakens and becomes focused at interannual timescales; with the shift in 1976, variability with a period of about 4 years becomes prominent. Our results suggest that variability in the tropical Pacific is linked to the region's mean climate, and that changes in both have occurred during periods of natural as well as anthropogenic climate forcing.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)989-993
Number of pages5
Issue number6807
StatePublished - Oct 26 2000

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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