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Permanent El Niño during the Pliocene warm period not supported by coral evidence
Watanabe, T.; Suzuki, A.; Minobe, S.; Kawashima, T.; Kameo, K.; Minoshima, K.; Aguilar, Y.M.; Wani, R.; Kawahata, H.; Sowa, K.; Nagai, T.; Kase, T. (2011). Permanent El Niño during the Pliocene warm period not supported by coral evidence. Nature (Lond.) 471(7337): 209-211.
In: Nature: International Weekly Journal of Science. Nature Publishing Group: London. ISSN 0028-0836, more
Peer reviewed article  

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  • Watanabe, T.
  • Suzuki, A.
  • Minobe, S.
  • Kawashima, T.
  • Kameo, K.
  • Minoshima, K.
  • Aguilar, Y.M.
  • Wani, R.
  • Kawahata, H.
  • Sowa, K.
  • Nagai, T.
  • Kase, T.

    The El Nino/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) system during the Pliocene warm period (PWP; 3-5 million years ago) may have existed in a permanent El Nino state with a sharply reduced zonal sea surface temperature (SST) gradient in the equatorial Pacific Ocean(1). This suggests that during the PWP, when global mean temperatures and atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations were similar to those projected for near-term climate change(2), ENSO variability-and related global climate teleconnections-could have been radically different from that today. Yet, owing to a lack of observational evidence on seasonal and interannual SST variability from crucial low-latitude sites, this fundamental climate characteristic of the PWP remains controversial(1,3-10). Here we show that permanent El Nino conditions did not exist during the PWP. Our spectral analysis of the delta(18)O SST and salinity proxy, extracted from two 35-year, monthly resolved PWP Porites corals in the Philippines, reveals variability that is similar to present ENSO variation. Although our fossil corals cannot be directly compared with modern ENSO records, two lines of evidence suggest that Philippine corals are appropriate ENSO proxies. First, delta(18)O anomalies from a nearby live Porites coral are correlated with modern records of ENSO variability. Second, negative-delta(18)O events in the fossil corals closely resemble the decreases in delta(18)O seen in the live coral during El Nino events. Prior research advocating a permanent El Nino state may have been limited by the coarse resolution of many SST proxies, whereas our coral-based analysis identifies climate variability at the temporal scale required to resolve ENSO structure firmly.

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