IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group I: The Physical Science Basis El Niño

This subsection addresses the projected change in the amplitude, frequency and spatial pattern of El Niño. Guilyardi (2006) assessed mean state, coupling strength and modes (SST mode resulting from local SST-wind interaction or thermocline mode resulting from remote wind-thermocline feedbacks), using the pre-industrial control and stabilised 2 × and 4 × atmospheric CO2 simulations in a multi-model ensemble. The models that exhibit the largest El Niño amplitude change in scenario experiments are those that shift towards a thermocline mode. The observed 1976 climate shift in the tropical Pacific actually involved such a mode shift (Fedorov and Philander, 2001). The mean state change, through change in the sensitivity of SST variability to surface wind stress, plays a key role in determining the ENSO variance characteristics (Z. Hu et al., 2004; Zelle et al., 2005). For example, a more stable ENSO system is less sensitive to changes in the background state than one that is closer to instability (Zelle et al., 2005). Thus, GCMs with an improper simulation of present-day climate mean state and air-sea coupling strength are not suitable for ENSO amplitude projections. Van Oldenborgh et al. (2005) calculate the change in ENSO variability by the ratio of the standard deviation of the first Empirical Orthogonal Function (EOF) of SLP between the current climate and in the future (Figure 10.16), which shows that changes in ENSO interannual variability differ from model to model. They categorised 19 models based on their skill in the present-day ENSO simulations. Using the most realistic 6 out of 19 models, they find no statistically significant changes in the amplitude of ENSO variability in the future. Large uncertainty in the skewness of the variability limits the assessment of the future relative strength of El Niño and La Niña events. Merryfield (2006) also analysed a multi-model ensemble and finds a wide range of behaviour for future El Niño amplitude, ranging from little change to larger El Niño events to smaller El Niño events, although several models that simulated some observed aspects of present-day El Niño events showed future increases in El Niño amplitude. However, significant multi-decadal fluctuations in El Niño amplitude in observations and in long coupled model control runs add another complicating factor to attempting to discern whether any future changes in El Niño amplitude are due to external forcing or are simply a manifestation of internal multi-decadal variability (Meehl et al., 2006a). Even with the larger warming scenario under 4 × atmospheric CO2 climate, Yeh and Kirtman (2005) find that despite the large changes in the tropical Pacific mean state, the changes in ENSO amplitude are highly model dependent. Therefore, there are no clear indications at this time regarding future changes in El Niño amplitude in a warmer climate. However, as first noted in the TAR, ENSO teleconnections over North America appear to weaken due at least in part to the mean change of base state mid-latitude atmospheric circulation (Meehl et al., 2006a).

In summary, all models show continued ENSO interannual variability in the future no matter what the change in average background conditions, but changes in ENSO interannual variability differ from model to model. Based on various assessments of the current multi-model archive, in which present-day El Niño events are now much better simulated than in the TAR, there is no consistent indication at this time of discernible future changes in ENSO amplitude or frequency.