Environment

‘Amazing archive’: Novel study reveals recent shift in El Ninos events

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El Ninos are becoming more common in the central Pacific but also developing into more extreme events in the ocean's east.

Mandy Freund, a post-doctorate researcher at the CSIRO and lead author of the paper published on Tuesday in Nature Geoscience, identified the shift using coral cores that plot El Nino events back to 1600.

El Ninos that formed in the eastern equatorial Pacific are becoming relatively rare, compared with those in the central Pacific. The 1997-98 and 2015-16 events, though, were two of the most powerful on record.

El Ninos that formed in the eastern equatorial Pacific are becoming relatively rare, compared with those in the central Pacific. The 1997-98 and 2015-16 events, though, were two of the most powerful on record.Credit:NASA

"Corals are really an amazing archive," said Dr Freund, who based her PhD at Melbourne University on the study. "They give you such precise information – I wondered why nobody had tried them before."

Oxygen isotopes and the ratio of strontium and calcium within the coral – drawn from 24 locations – allowed researchers to recreate past seasonal locations and strengths of El Ninos even in remote regions.

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The number of central Pacific El Ninos almost tripled from about 3.5 every 30 years to nine in the past three decades. The number of those forming in the thousands of kilometres to the east remained stable at about two.

The corals also revealed three of those forming in the east – 1982-83, 1997-1998 and 2015-16 -were the strongest events over the past 300 years.

"Now we have 400 years of records, and [those three] are still standing out," Dr Freund said.

Coral core extraction off Christmas Island.

Coral core extraction off Christmas Island.Credit:Jason Turl

During El Ninos, easterly trade winds stall or reverse, typically leading to drought in the western Pacific, such as eastern Australia and Indonesia, while producing heavy rains along the west coasts of the Americas.

Since they also reduce the rate of ocean uptake of heat from the atmosphere, global surface temperatures also spike during such years, making El Ninos the biggest near-term influence of weather patterns.

Having more central Pacific El Ninos is not good news for Australian farmers since they tend to have the biggest influence on lower rainfall during the critical winter and spring seasons, according to the Global Precipitation Climatology Project.

Ben Henley, a researcher at the Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes and also a co-author of the paper and a supervisor of Dr Freund's PhD, said the coral-based research offered "a very important advance".

"Before now, we had very little idea about how these El Nino types had varied in the past," he said. "This paper gives us a unique look at that past."

While the researchers had not sought to identify a human-led climate change signal, the shift in El NinoRead More – Source