Climate clam chowder has a spicy ENSO rhythm from an old recipe

From the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research comes word that the climate varied before, just like it does today, and we won’t be stuck with a permanent El Niño. Imagine that.

50-million-year-old clam shells provide indications of future of El Niño phenomenon

Bremerhaven, 14 September 2011. Earth warming will presumably not lead to a permanent El Niño state in the South Pacific Ocean. This is the conclusion drawn by an international team of researchers after it investigated 50-million-year-old clam shells and wood from the Antarctic. The growth rings of these fossils indicate that there was also a climate rhythm over the South Pacific during the last prolonged interglacial phase of the Earth’s history resembling the present-day interplay of El Niño and La Niña.

Floods in Peru, drought in Australia: When the South Pacific Ocean warms up at an above-average rate every three to six years and “El Niño” influences weather patterns, the world in the coastal countries affected is turned completely around. Fishermen come back with empty nets, crops are lost, food prices increase and nearly everyone hopes the warm phase of the climate phenomenon “El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO)” will abate as quickly as possible.

The ENSO phenomenon still changes regularly from its cold phase (La Niña) to the warm phase (El Niño) and back. But what will things be like in the future? How will the worldwide temperature rise influence ENSO? Will there perhaps be a permanent El Niño? To answer this important question, scientists are looking at the past – particularly at the Eocene period 60 to 37 million years ago. “The Eocene is considered to be the last real prolonged warm period. At that time the Antarctic was ice-free and green. Even trees grew and we know about the water temperature of the ocean that it fluctuated between 10 and 16 degrees Celsius over the year,” says Thomas Brey, biologist at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in the Helmholtz Association.

He and colleagues from the USA and Germany have now succeeded for the first time in verifying a rhythm according to the pattern of the ENSO phenomenon in the growth patterns of fossil clams and wood from the early Eocene. Their results will soon appear in the journal Geophysical Research Letter and are already available on its website in a text entitled “El Niño in the Eocene greenhouse recorded by fossil bivalves and wood from Antarctica”.

Brey and his colleagues investigated shells of the bivalve species Cucullaea Raea and Eurhomalea antarctica that are 50 million years old as well as a piece of wood from Seymour Island in the Antarctic. “Like trees, clams form growth rings. We measured their width and examined them for growth rhythms,” states Brey.

Whether clams grow depends on the availability of food and heat. “That means the change from “good” and “poor” environmental conditions at that time is still reflected in the width of the growth rings we find today. And as we were able to show, this change took place in the same three to six year rhythm we are familiar with in connection with ENSO today,” says Brey.

The shells are a real piece of luck for him. “To verify ENSO, we need climate archives that cover the largest possible period year by year. Back then clams lived for up to 100 years. This is a good basis for our work.”

To examine the significance of the growth rings of clams and wood, the researchers compared their measurement results with current ENSO data as well as with the ENSO-like fluctuations produced by a climate model of the Eocene. The result: all patterns correspond. “Our results are a strong indication that an ENSO phenomenon which fluctuated between warm and cold phases also existed in the warm Eocene,” says Brey.

Good news! Should the scientists be right, these findings mean for the future that in all likelihood the worldwide temperature rise will not disrupt the ENSO climate rhythm above the South Pacific Ocean.


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100 year old clams? I wonder what the chowder tastes like and how tough the meat would be.

Steve from rockwood

This has Manhattan written all over it.

Gary Hladik

So this suggests that if our world warms to a point comparable with the early Eocene, ENSO-like variations could persist, but not necessarily. On the other hand we won’t necessarily fry, either. Good news, indeed. No doubt Al Gore will be relieved. 🙂
I’m a bit skeptical about that one piece of wood, though. It didn’t drift over from the Yamal Peninsula, did it? 🙂

Leo G

how long do clams live nowadays? if less then 100 years, is this long life spanfrom millions of years ago not another proxie for warm being better then cool?


Dr. Sharma sounds like a sensible man:
19 Sept: Jamaica Gleaner: Climatologist: Demand for more cooling will increase energy use
Climatologist, Dr. Michael Taylor has made it clear that there will be an increase in the demand for cooling in light of global warming, yielding a necessary increase in energy consumption…
“We depend on the cool nights to save our energy,” said Taylor, who also heads the physics department at the University of the West Indies at Mona…
Taylor spoke at today’s sitting of the Energy Conference 2011, hosted by the Jamaica Institution of Engineers in conjunction with UWI and the University of Technology…
Dr. Chandrabhan Sharma, professor of energy systems at the University of West Indies (UWI) St. Augustine, argued against a dependence on renewable energy, something he viewed as incapable of dealing with the demands of an energy system like Jamaica’s.
Furthermore, he said global warming is a natural phenomenon related to solar activity and that global temperature increases are, in fact, the cause (not effect) of increased green house gases.
Whether an increase in green house gases results in climate change, or vice versa, is irrelevant Taylor argued.
The key, he noted, is not just the construction of renewable energy; rather it is whether— through the use of LED lights, water harvesting, the re-use of grey water, or renewable energy construction — that people take advantage of available resources in the mitigation of overall energy consumption.
btw haven’t seen this on WUWT as yet:
19 Sept: Reuters: Siemens partner biggest loser in nuclear exit
Siemens Chief Executive Peter Loescher said on Sunday the company was giving up its nuclear power business including a planned partnership with Rosatom in response to the German government’s decision to quit the energy source…
At the time, Siemens expected the nuclear market to have a renaissance as governments sought to cut carbon emissions worldwide…

Anything is possible

Good news? I think not.
Just wait until Michael Mann gets hold of the Yamal clams……..


I don’t like speeling posts but do respectfully feel the need to point out the “comes world ” error in the first line of your post.
REPLY: Fixed, thanks -Anthony

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.


These proxies are all defective as weather or climate indicators. And I suspect they will always be so, excepting the most gross climatic disruptions.


Trees such as those found in Antarctic are quite common in Arctic Canada as well – fossilized of course. Therefore this information is very valid especially with similar trees in the opposite Arctic region – We already knows trees found in the high Arctic were similar to those found in present day China. Moreover, the Arctic is especially good for dinosaurs who living as far north as the high Arctic strengthening similar developments in the Antarctic in weather, climate, and living species.
I’ve been saying for twenty years today’s present climate is common – to really understand we must study the past to gain knowledge of the present. If it’s happened before it will happen again and again and again. The historical earth already proves this point. It is no small wonder why the hockey stick left out the MWP and earlier earth history – no tax dollars in mentioning those little facts, is there?

John Marshall

So climate runs in cycles. Some of us have been saying this for years.
Absolutely nothing to do with CO2.

As always, there’s no point in even asking whether one type of extreme will persist.
The earth is still livable after all these millenia (billenia?). Therefore the earth’s systems are regulated by uncountable negative feedback loops. Therefore no extreme condition can persist. Everything will return to the stable centerpoint sooner or later.
If that were not true, we wouldn’t be here asking the question.

Viv Evans

Did they also compare the growth ‘rings’ (there are no ‘rings’ in bivalves …) of current clams with current ENSO data?
If yes – interesting research.
If no … sigh …


This important but unsurprising finding confirms that the ENSO is a natural (nonlinear) oscillator. To suggest that a permanent el Nino might arise is as intelligent as proposing global warming could lead to permament summer or permanent daytime.

Bill Illis

It appears to me that the Earth will have always had an ENSO-like pattern in any large mature ocean basin at the equator. (It needs to be large across the equator and north and south as well so that gyres can form).
The Pacific and its earlier names has been big enough for about 500 million years so that it how long the Pacific ENSO has been around. When the Atlantic gets a little bigger in 20 million years or so, it will have also have defined ENSO (it already has a mini-one).

Beth Cooper

Maybe we’re beginning to understand the climate system. What goes around comes around.

I just wonder how they replicate their results 😕 How do you find two clams that lived at the same time? Or better still a clam and piece of wood that grew at the same time? /sarc
More seriously, just like tree rings, surely there are many other factors that influence growth rates than water temperature (without having read the paper I assume that is the connection to ENSO events)?


“Clams Got Legs!”
Johnny Hart

Kind of off topic, but I love the line “50 million year old clam shells and wood from the Antarctic”. Whenever I have a discussion with an AGW advocate, I always ask them to explain to me “What caused the end of the last ice age, why did the glaciers retreat from New York?” Now I can also ask “If the melting of the glaciers, Arctic ice and Antarctic ice is unprecedented, how do you explain the 50 million year old fossilized remains of trees found in the Antarctic?”


This is a unfounded clam. As “real scientists” like Hansen, Jones, and Mann know and and have written in beer reviewed climate science journals, a clam has one foot and no mouth, just a siphon. So it is impossible to put its foot in its mouth they way they have. Ok, I’ll clam up now.


I always knew these claims of CAGW were part of a shell game. ;-> (sorry…!)


A look at past data can, if interpreted correctly, provide us with ‘ground truth’ information of what has happened, but it does not say why it did. It might be interesting to see if this cycle interval correlates with the width of the Pacific Ocean over geologic time, but for most of us, that would be a moot issue. This data does seem to indicate that the Niño/Niña oscillation is a robust feature of the planetary circulation that is not disrupted by gross climate changes.

nutso fasst

An article in the October 2011 National Geographic – ‘World Without Ice’, by Robert Kunzig – is about the Eocene, when “56 million years ago a mysterious surge of carbon dioxide… sent global temperatures soaring.” Can anyone here comment on the ‘settledness’ of the science in the article?

Nutso, I stopped getting the National Geographic when they went to the AGW dark side. Their articles all began to blame man for everything. To me, anything they print is suspect.

Kevin Kilty

Indeed, even in our “unprecedented” warming, weather continues to work essentially as it always does. Perhaps we have a little less extreme cold weather in the winter, but we can still suffer a blizzard that puts lives and livelihoods at risk. It seems to me that looking at the relationship of climate and weather in this matter puts it in very real terms. Weather 50 million years ago behaved in this same way.
BTW, We have had cooler weather and some days of drizzle and overcast here in E. Wyoming, so you can tell that La Nina is fading. Relief will come to Texas in due course as that is weather working as it always does.

Brian H

So, warm and cold water sloshed back and forth across the Pacific then the same as it does now. Who’d a thunk?

nutso fasst

Thanks for the reply, Jay, I’ve noticed that every issue of Nat’l G now has some reference to man-caused catastrophe. This article goes further, claiming climate experts don’t give us the “grim forecasts… because skeptics, exaggerating scientific uncertainties, are always accusing them of alarmism.”