The Southern Oscillation recorded in the δ18O of corals from Tarawa Atoll

Julia E. Cole, Richard G. Fairbanks

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

141 Scopus citations


in the western equatorial Pacific, the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon is characterized by precipitation variability associated with the migration of the Indonesian low pressure cell to the region of the date line and the equator. During ENSO events, Tarawa Atoll (1°N, 172°E) experiences heavy rainfall which has an estimated δ18O of about −8 to −10‰ δ18OSMOW. At Tarawa, sufficient precipitation of this composition falls during ENSO events to alter the δ18O and the salinity of the surface waters. Oxygen isotope records from two corals collected off the reef crest of Tarawa reflect rainfall variations associated with both weak and strong ENSO conditions, with approximately monthly resolution. Coral skeletal δ18O variations due to small sea surface temperature (SST) changes are secondary. These records demonstrate the remarkable ability of this technique to reconstruct variations in the position of the Indonesian Low from coral δ18O records in the western equatorial Pacific, a region which has few paleoclimatic records. The coral isotopic data correctly resolve the relative magnitudes of recent variations in the Southern Oscillation Index. Combining the Tarawa record with an oxygen isotopic history from a Galápagos Islands coral demonstrates the ability to distinguish the meteorologic (precipitation) and oceanographic (SST) anomalies that characterize ENSO events across the Pacific Basin over the period of common record (1960–1979). Comparison of the intensity of climatic anomalies at these two sites yields insight into the spatial variability of ENSO events. Isotope records from older corals can provide high‐resolution, Pacific‐wide reconstructions of ENSO behavior during periods of different climate boundary conditions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)669-683
Number of pages15
Issue number5
StatePublished - Oct 1990

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oceanography
  • Palaeontology


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