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"The good news is that global warming does not drive the Pacific Ocean into a permanent El Niño-like condition," says Mark Pagani. "The bad news is that the tropics will warm as we continue to add greenhouse gas to the atmosphere." (Credit: Luke Addison/Flickr)

climate change

No ‘permanent’ El Niño means tropics may get hotter

New research casts doubt on the existence of a past period of “permanent” El Niño-like conditions and suggests it may get markedly hotter in the tropics.

“There’s good news and bad news about future global warming,” says Mark Pagani, professor of geology and geophysics at Yale University. “The good news is that global warming does not drive the Pacific Ocean into a permanent El Niño-like condition with all the other regional climate impacts that come with that.

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“The bad news is that the tropics will warm as we continue to add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere—and the recent past was probably much warmer than generally assumed.”

Modern El Niño conditions are characterized by unusually warm surface water in the eastern equatorial Pacific, and a very low overall equatorial Pacific temperature gradient. The quasi-periodic phenomenon’s effects on global weather patterns can be dramatic, including extreme rainfall in some places (Texas, for example) and drought elsewhere (Indonesia and Australia).

A conventional view holds that sea surface temperatures in the warmest part of the equatorial Pacific—the vast western “warm pool”—remained relatively constant for millions of years. Given that ocean temperatures elsewhere rose during this time, the warm pool’s stable temperature implied a tropical ocean “thermostat” or temperature control mechanism, Pagani says.

But in a new reconstruction of ancient Pacific sea surface temperatures covering 12 million years, Pagani and Yale doctoral candidate Yi Ge Zhang found that Pacific warm pool temperatures were notably higher 12 million years ago than previously thought—as much as 4°C warmer.

No tropical thermostat

The results, published in the journal Science, indicate that all parts of the Pacific warmed during past periods of global warming, suggesting greater variability of ancient ocean temperatures and the absence of any tropical temperature control mechanism or “permanent El Niño-like” conditions.

“El Niño conditions today are characterized by very low equatorial Pacific temperature gradients,” Pagani says. “It seemed from previous data that the equatorial Pacific maintained similarly low temperature gradients in the past and thus reflected a ‘permanent’ state characteristic of the modern El Niño.

“Our work dispels this idea by showing that the processes responsible for today’s strong equatorial temperature gradient, with a western warm pool and the eastern cold tongue, were also operating in the past. There is no evidence of a tropical thermostat that keeps the tropics from overheating.

The Schlanger Fellowship and the National Science Foundation provided support for the research.

Source: Yale University

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