El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and global warming

Nyenzi, B.; Lefale, P. F.

It is widely accepted by the international scientific community that human activities have increased atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHG) and aerosols since the pre-industrial era. This increase has contributed to most of the warming (0.6±0.2°C) observed over the 20th century, land areas warming more than the oceans, with the 1990s very likely to be the warmest decade of the 20th century (IPCC, 2001). How this warming influences the occurrence, severity and frequency of ENSO episodes remains highly uncertain. The IPCC (2001) assessment of the scientific literature found insufficient evidence to suggest any direct attribution between increase in ENSO events that occurred in the last 20 to 30 years of the 20th century and global warming (IPCC, 2001). However, assessments carried out since then (e.g. IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (AR4), in preparations) suggest El Niño events have become more frequent, persistent and intense during the last 20 to 30 years compared to the previous 100 years. Attribution to global warming, however, remains highly uncertain. Efforts to simulate and model past, present and future behaviour of ENSO under a warming world due to enhanced GHG concentrations produce conflicting results. Since substantial internally-generated variability of ENSO behaviour on multi-decadal to century timescales occurs in long, unforced atmospheric-oceanic general circulation model (AOGCM) simulations, the attribution of past and future changes in ENSO amplitude and frequency to external forcing like GHG concentrations cannot be made with certainty. Such attribution would require extensive use of ensemble climate experiments or long experiments with stabilised GHG forcing. Although there are now better ENSO simulations in AOGCM, further model improvements are needed to simulate a more realistic Pacific climatology and seasonal cycle of the key modes influencing the climate of the region, as well as more realistic ENSO variability. More research is needed to further enhance scientific understanding of possible teleconnections between ENSO and global warming. It is worth noting the IPCC AR4 due to be release in September 2007, would provide a more detailed assessment of ENSO and global warming than what is being covered in this paper.



Nyenzi, B. / Lefale, P. F.: El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and global warming. 2006. Copernicus Publications.


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