Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Publication Date
25 June 2023

Towards understanding the robust strengthening of ENSO and more frequent extreme El Niño events in CMIP6 global warming simulations



The El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) has profound impacts on weather patterns across the globe, yet there is no consensus on its response to global warming. Several modelling studies find a stronger ENSO in global warming scenarios, while other studies suggest ENSO weakening. Using a broad range of models from the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project phase 6 (CMIP6) and four types of warming experiments, here we show that the majority of the models predict a stronger ENSO by century-end in Shared Social Pathway (SSP) experiments, and in idealized 1pctCO2 and abrupt 4xCO2 experiments. Several models, however, do predict no change or ENSO weakening, especially in the idealized experiments. Critically, the strongest forcing (abrupt-4xCO2) does not induce the strongest ENSO response, while differences between the models are much greater than those between warming scenarios. For the long-term response (over 1000 years) the models disagree even on the sign of change. Furthermore, changes in ENSO sea surface temperature (SST) variability are only modestly correlated with the tropical Pacific mean state change. The highest correlation for ENSO SST amplitude is found with the mean zonal SST gradient in the SSP5-8.5 experiment (R = − 0.58). In contrast, changes in ENSO rainfall variability correlate well with changes in the mean state, as well as with changes in ENSO SST variability. When evaluating the Bjerknes Stability Index for a subset of models, we find that it is not a reliable predictor of ENSO strengthening, as this index tends to predict greater stability with warming. We argue that the enhanced ENSO stability is offset by increases in atmospheric noise or/and potential nonlinear effects. However, a robust inter-model mechanism that can explain a stronger ENSO simulated with global warming is still lacking. Therefore, caution should be exercised when considering ENSO changes based on a single model or warming scenario.

Heede, Ulla K., and Alexey V. Fedorov. 2023. “Towards Understanding The Robust Strengthening Of Enso And More Frequent Extreme El Niño Events In Cmip6 Global Warming Simulations”. Climate Dynamics 61 (5-6). Springer Science and Business Media LLC: 3047-3060. doi:10.1007/s00382-023-06856-x.
Funding Program Area(s)