El Niño and its partner La Niña, the warm and cold phases in the eastern half of the tropical Pacific, play havoc with climate worldwide. Predicting El Niño events more than several months ahead is now routine, but predicting how it will change in a warming world has been hampered by the short instrumental record. An international team of climate scientists has now shown that annually resolved tree-ring records from North America, particularly from the US Southwest, give a continuous representation of the intensity of El Niño events over the past 1100 years and can be used to improve El Niño prediction in climate models. The study, spearheaded by Jinbao Li, International Pacific Research Center, University of Hawai’i at Manoa, is published in the May 6 issue of Nature Climate Change.
Tree rings in the US Southwest, the team found, agree well with the 150-year instrumental sea surface temperature records in the tropical Pacific. During El Niño, the unusually warm surface temperatures in the eastern Pacific lead to changes in the atmospheric circulation, causing unusually wetter winters in the US Southwest, and thus wider tree rings; unusually cold eastern Pacific temperatures during La Niña lead to drought and narrower rings. The tree-ring records, furthermore, match well existing reconstructions of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation and correlate highly, for instance, with δ18O isotope concentrations of both living corals and corals that lived hundreds of years ago around Palmyra in the central Pacific.
“Our work revealed that the towering trees on the mountain slopes of the US Southwest and the colorful corals in the tropical Pacific both listen to the music of El Niño, which shows its signature in their yearly growth rings,” explains Li. “The coral records, however, are brief, whereas the tree-ring records from North America supply us with a continuous El Niño record reaching back 1100 years.”
Read more here Tree rings tell a 1,100-year history of El Nino.