Intensification of El Niño-induced atmospheric anomalies under greenhouse warming
Study key findings & significance
- Models show that under global warming, even if the El Niño/Southern Oscillation's (ENSO’s) sea surface temperature remains unchanged, the response of tropical lower tropospheric humidity to the ENSO amplifies
- The study reduces uncertainty in the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) response to greenhouse warming
The El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) has a profound influence on global climate and ecosystems. Determining how the ENSO responds to greenhouse warming is a crucial issue in climate science. Despite recent progress in understanding, the responses of important ENSO characteristics, such as air temperature and atmospheric circulation, are still unknown. Here, we use a suite of global climate model projections to show that greenhouse warming drives a robust intensification of ENSO-driven variability in boreal winter tropical upper tropospheric temperature and geopotential height, tropical humidity, subtropical jets and tropical Pacific rainfall. These robust changes are primarily due to the Clausius–Clapeyron relationship, whereby saturation vapour pressure increases nearly exponentially with increasing temperature. Therefore, the vapour response to temperature variability is larger under a warmer climate. As a result, under global warming, even if the ENSO’s sea surface temperature remains unchanged, the response of tropical lower tropospheric humidity to the ENSO amplifies, which in turn results in major reorganization of atmospheric temperature, circulation and rainfall. These findings provide a novel theoretical constraint for ENSO changes and reduce uncertainty in the ENSO response to greenhouse warming.