Articles | Volume 6
01 Feb 2006
01 Feb 2006

How unusual was late 20th century El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO)? Assessing evidence from tree-ring, coral, ice-core and documentary palaeoarchives, A.D. 1525-2002

J. L. Gergis and A. M. Fowler

Abstract. Multiple proxy records (tree-ring, coral, ice and documentary) were examined to isolate ENSO signals associated with both phases of the phenomenon for the period A.D. 1525-2002. To avoid making large-scale inferences from single proxy analysis, regional signals were aggregated into a network of high-resolution records, revealing large-scale trends in the frequency, magnitude and duration of pre-instrumental ENSO using novel applications of percentile analysis. Here we use the newly introduced coupled ocean-atmosphere ENSO index (CEI) as a baseline for the calibration of proxy records. The reconstruction revealed 83 extreme or very strong ENSO episodes since A.D. 1525, expanding considerably on existing ENSO event chronologies. Significantly, excerpts of the most comprehensive list of La Niña events complied to date are presented, indicating peak activity during the 16th to mid 17th and 20th centuries. Although extreme events are seen throughout the 478-year reconstruction, 43% of the extreme ENSO events noted since A.D. 1525 occur during the 20th century, with an obvious bias towards enhanced El Niño conditions in recent decades. Of the total number of extreme event years reconstructed, 30% of all reconstructed ENSO event years occur post-1940 alone suggesting that recent ENSO variability appears anomalous in the context of the past five centuries.