Study: Current climate models misrepresent El Niño


Current El Nono SST map, source:

Current El Nino SST map, source:

Clues to the fundamental physics of El Niño from millennia-old corals and clams

An analysis of fossil corals and mollusk shells from the Pacific Ocean reveals there is no link between the strength of seasonal differences and El Niño, a complex but irregular climate pattern with large impacts on weather, agriculture, fisheries, tourism, and air quality worldwide.

The finding contradicts the top nine climate models in use today, which associate exceptionally hot summers and cold winters with weak El Niños, and vice versa.

“The idea behind this link is based on very well-established physics, so it’s appealing to think that nature works this way. But our analysis shows that it’s not that simple,” said Julien Emile-Geay, lead author of a study contradicting the models and assistant professor of Earth Sciences at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

His study was published on December 14 in the journal Nature Geoscience.

Emile-Geay checked the models against data collected by his coauthors on shells and fossil corals spanning the Holocene period – the last 10,000 years of Earth’s history. The period had similar geography, amounts of ice and levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, making it a good analogue for today’s climate.

Because shells form by crystalizing calcium carbonate taken from the surrounding water, they record information about the temperature and salinity of that water. For example, the shells capture the prevalence of various isotopes of oxygen, which vary based on sea-surface temperature.

Analyzing the composition of nearly 60 specimens through their thickness, the team was able to reconstruct a detailed history of climate in the tropical Pacific. The corals and clams were taken from various locations throughout the Pacific Ocean, creating a spatially and time-distributed data set that offered insight into both the amplitude of seasons and the intensity of El Niño via snapshots spanning the past 10,000 years.

He then compared this dataset to the predictions of nine state-of-the-art climate models, and found a mismatch: the models generally fail to simulate lengthy periods of subdued El Niños like the one that occurred 3,000 to 5,000 years ago; the ones that came close did so by relying on an Earth-Sun configuration that ran contrary to observed conditions.

“The causes for prolonged periods of weak El Niño are either beyond the current models, or we’re missing an important piece of the puzzle” Emile-Geay said. “This points to deficiencies in the way these models simulate various aspects of tropical Pacific climate, from average conditions, to the march of seasons, to El Niño itself.”

Emile-Geay said he hopes his findings will be used to refine climate models further, making them ever more accurate.

“Building climate models is like building a ladder to the Moon,” Emile-Geay said. “They are not perfect but they are reaching for the heavens. It’s a long process, and one in which the paleoclimate record can teach us a lot about the inner workings of the climate system.”


83 thoughts on “Study: Current climate models misrepresent El Niño

  1. This SST map is dated yesterday, and the Blob in the NE Pacific is gone. It is there clear as ever in the SST map dated Dec. 2, in the earlier post today.
    Did the Blob really cool off and dissipate this quickly after it persisted for so long?

  2. making them ever more accurate.
    The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
    But I have promises to keep,
    And miles to go before I sleep,
    R Frost poem
    And this writer has as farther to go before the can even be considered ‘reasonable close’ let alone accurate.

    • DD more
      One of my favorite poems here is the rest
      Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
      Whose woods these are I think I know.
      His house is in the village though;
      He will not see me stopping here
      To watch his woods fill up with snow.
      My little horse must think it queer
      To stop without a farmhouse near
      Between the woods and frozen lake
      The darkest evening of the year.
      He gives his harness bells a shake
      To ask if there is some mistake.
      The only other sound’s the sweep
      Of easy wind and downy flake.
      The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
      But I have promises to keep,
      And miles to go before I sleep,
      And miles to go before I sleep.

      • Mike,
        Thank you for that reminder. I’m still waiting for the sound of the easy wind and downy flake this year.
        A winter susurrous is very comforting.
        Many years ago,while waiting for a wedding, I had the pleasure of smoking a cigar on his grave at the old North Church in Bennington.

      • Whose trends these are I cannot say
        I think they come from NOAA
        It seems quite strange to many friends
        To see this pause in recent trends
        Our little friends are stark with rage
        When as they renew the current page
        And see the ENSO ebb and flow
        And mourn the passing PDO
        They give their graphs a little shake
        To make the globe to seem to bake
        They gash their teeth, they groan, they weep
        They think there must be some mistake
        They will not see the passing meme
        Of weather less and less extreme
        But they have contracts to fulfill
        And must adjust before they bill
        (Alright, alright, so what do you want for ten minutes?)

    • I’ve considered that one. It occurs to me that “promises to keep” is generally an infinitely superior condition to lack thereof.

  3. “we’re missing an important piece of the puzzle” … I think the author is missing an important part of the frontal lobe … or maybe just a half-baked attempt to obtain more funding

  4. The finding contradicts the top nine climate models in use today, which associate exceptionally hot summers and cold winters with weak El Niños, and vice versa.

    I keep hoping for the long painful climb down from CAGW. Lately we’ve seen a few stories like that that seem to nibble at the edges of orthodoxy.
    Surely if the powers-that-be actually believed in CAGW, we would have had a climate treaty with teeth and not the fraud that James Hansen says it is. (The novelty of agreeing with James Hansen has me positively giddy.)

    • ” if the powers-that-be actually believed in CAGW, we would have had a climate treaty with teeth”
      Yes, pretty much. The people who hold the real power in Western societies let the IPCC/AGW fandango keep whirling on because stopping it is too hard, there’s too many vested interests in keeping it going. But they aren’t going to ultimately let it affect their hold on power (which would be required by the true global effort needed if AGW were true). So they play lip service, but never actually let go of the reins of power, which as we all know are based on fossil fuel use.
      Which is good, because the longer things go on much as they are, constant rising CO2 levels, temperatures not doing much (maybe even dropping over the next decade or two) the disconnect between climate ‘science’ and reality will get even more screamingly obvious. We passed the high water mark of AGW at Copenhagen – that was the point those driving this thing had a (small) opportunity of the biggest power grab in world history. They failed (not least thanks to the Climategate Email leaker, who may go down in history as the man (or woman) who helped save the West from self immolation), and each passing climate conference their real influence on power gets less and less. Slowly the number of nations prepared to participate will drop, leaving the remainder more exposed. It will be a death of a thousand cuts.

  5. What jumps out to a non-scientist like myself about studies like this one is that science keeps moving. It may be and maybe it is an oversimplification to state that some areas of science lend themselves to public policy decision making better than others because their results are more certain. The higher the probability of accuracy and the better it corresponds to observed nature the better we can use it to make effective decisions.
    My skepticism regarding the current state of climate science results from the seemingly low probability that much of the scientific literature is accurate, matches observations of nature, and of course the high degree of politicization. All of that is the question that we keep asking here. If your science cannot meet a reasonable test we cannot accept it as a basis for decision making. That you keep shouting louder when presented with valid questions just means that your science doesn’t have kung-fu grip. In fact it is a limp fish.
    I have learned allot about climate science and science in general from the folks posting on this blog over the past six years. I’m grateful for that. My lifelong area of study has been human history. You can see how such study might make you a skeptic of big anthropogenic schemes that ‘splain the world. We are often to clever for our own good.

  6. “It’s not that simple”
    Every report on climate theories, studies, observations should carry this preface.

  7. This is good research because in Australia they were predicting an El Nino of 1998 proportions if not bigger. Spring storms have been sweeping over, so the story changed to it does not predict storms.
    Accuracy of prediction increased before the warmist junk science when they discovered the Indian Dipole.
    Hopefully it will increase again.
    One of the messages for the champagne poppers in Paris is that their confidence is based on a mirage of their own infallibility.

  8. “Analyzing the composition of nearly 60 specimens through their thickness, the team was able to reconstruct a detailed history of climate in the tropical Pacific”
    What? They expect 60 specimens to represent 10,000 years and thousands of square miles of the tropical Pacific?
    No link provided but I guess it’s this one:
    SI is more interesting with the actual performance of the 9 models including our friends Jones and Smith (Schmidt):
    Of course the PR guy was totally off. It wasn’t 60 shells analyzed for thickness but 62 data records of delta-18 O in the tropics, covering about 2,000 years of the Holocene.
    A heroic effort, but even the authors emphasize the terrific uncertainties involved. Still, it will be hard for the modelers to claim any skill on understanding ENSO.

  9. “Building climate models is like building a ladder to the Moon,”
    Yes and the Climate Alarm community and their rickety ladder hasn’t even made it out of the troposphere yet. The moon is a pipe dream.

  10. “or we’re missing an important piece of the puzzle”
    Or ten. Even the earliest GCM’s produced index for ENSO. Kind of amazing in itself,but the index was garbage. Not all emergent phenomena are true.
    Kim Cobb’s studies of coral show the strongest ninos during the little ice age. That would be interesting. Other studies contradict this.
    Would that we were missing only one piece of the puzzle.

  11. What have I been saying all along?
    Let me repeat it…cause I just love being right.
    The term ‘el nino’ originates in a local observation of ocean temp/current.
    A number of associated weather patterns became associated with it…to the extent that it became regarded as a ‘coherent’,’ interconnected’, ‘systemic’ event.
    It’s not.
    It never was.
    People here in Australia are very confused that the ‘el nino’ has not resulted in ‘el nino’ type weather events.
    To expect the entire PACIFIC OCEAN to behave the same way, every time a localised set of conditions , is observed is close to moronic!
    Give it up.

  12. Emile-Geay said he hopes his findings will be used to refine climate models further, making them ever more accurate.

    Oh, I just love the language, as though they were even vaguely “accurate” already, What a joke.
    “Building climate models is like building a ladder to the Moon,” Emile-Geay said. “They are not perfect but they are reaching for the heavens. It’s a long process, and one in which the paleoclimate record can teach us a lot about the inner workings of the climate system.”

    Right, so far they have 6ft step ladder. They just have not worked out that it will not be stable once they make it 12ft high.
    You need a rocket to get to the moon , not a ladder. I think the metaphor is surprisingly apt for the idea of building an iterative numerical model to predict climate 100 years into the future.
    As much use a trying to build a ladder to get to the moon.

    Quote of the week:
    Emile-Geay : “Building climate models is like building a ladder to the Moon,”

    • I don’t want to be on top of that ladder trying to catch up the Moon as it passes by, while the Earth is rotating.

    • Good to see that the recovery is continuing a pace..
      A few days, ago, I set out that plot, commenting that whilst the minimum summer ice extent, was around midway between 2005 and 2014, the ice was recovering faster from that minimum such that it was trending at a greater maximum extent.
      So I am pleased to note that that trend is continuing. As you note Arctic ice is one of the last legs to which the warmists can point (and this is only because they compare it with 1979 which appears to have been a high; the amount of Arctic ice grew during the 1970s which was the reason behind the coming ice age alarm that warmist wish to say never happened).. The advantage for them is that Arctic ice is a visual that everyone can easily understand; a picture tells a 1000 words, and does not require any detailed knowledge of science or other facts so the MSM are easily persuaded to show pictures of melting ice and ppor polar bears all at sea.
      If there is no long lasting step change in temperatures coincident with the current 2015/16 strong El Nino, as there was such a long lasting step change in temperature coincident with the 1997/98 Super El Nino, and should Arctic ice recover between now and 2019 when AR6 comes to be written, it will be very difficult for the IPCC to keep up the charade since in this scenario, the ‘pause’ will be over 21 years in duration, as the ‘pause’ continues and lengthens, Climate Sensitivity (if any at all) must,/b> come down, and the ever widening discrepancy between model projections and observation will be even wider still.
      There could be a lot of headwinds for AR6.

    • Eliza, You think Arctic ice is growing. I think it is shrinking. I suggest we use the september minimum extent over the next three years and see if it is lower or higher than the last three years. If you think it is growing, you should think it will be higher.
      I don’t think there is any evidence that the very clear and obvious downward trend since 1979 has changed. I predict a regression to the mean trend, and hence lower ice extents over the next 3 years. What do you think will happen?
      Richard Verney below says that “and should Arctic ice recover between now and 2019 when AR6 comes to be written, it will be very difficult for the IPCC to keep up the charade.” I agree that that may be true. Growing sea ice minimum will make me think again. But will Richard acknowledge that if the ice does not recover, and continues its downward trend, then that is evidence that it is not a charade, and perhaps he will think again? Or will he just move on to some other convenient data he thinks supports the cause?
      “the ‘pause’ will be over 21 years in duration, as the ‘pause’ continues and lengthens,” What if the pause shortens or disappears? Will he think again?

      • I am a sceptic.
        This means that I am sceptical of (almost) every argument in support of AGW, and more so cAGW, and I am sceptical of (almost) every argument against AGW, and cAGW (although I consider the latter to be almost impossible since if there were not negative feedbacks it is extremely unlikely that we would be here today discussing climate, so I do not consider it at all likely that there are runnaways).
        Sceptism, is a two way street. Further, I rather not make predictions about the future. That is a mugs game. But one can extrapolate on a what if scenario basis. So we can already see the problems for AR6 if X happens, or if/b> Y does not happen.
        We can say what will happen if Climate Sensitivity to CO2 is X or Y, but the problem is that we do not know whether there is any Climate Sensitivity to CO2, at all, such that such speculation is of no real assistance. Climate Sensitivity to CO2 has yet to be measured above the noise of natural variation and the error bounds of our best measuring equipment, and the resultant data set that they produce.
        The problem in this science is data. There is issues with all the data sets, and either they are not fit for purpose (ie, they cannot withstand ordinary scientific rigour, eg., the land based thermometer record) or if they are scientifically sound they are simply of too short a duration to yet tell us something of significance, eg ARGO.
        There are some pictures taken by NASA in the early/mid 1970s, which from time to time surface, that show that Arctic ice is similar today. We also know from the Nuclear Submarines that surfaced in the Arctic in the late 1950s that where they surfaced has less ice than today, but of course, there is no quantative evidence. It is just that submarine could not surface there today. We have photographic evidence of that.
        It appears that Arctic ice is highly variable, and the reason for this is not simply temperature. One only has to see the concerns that were expressed in the late 1800s and of course this was a theme in the 1940s. Indeed, recently a WW2 US flight (perhaps 6 or so planes) has been discovered in Greenland due to the recent glacial retreat. This flight went down when glacial conditions were much the same as today, or less, and then since the downing of that flight ice has advanced (burying the planes) probably through to the late 1970s, and then the ice has retreated of late, and the flight has now been revealed and discovered. So it seems that we a re now back to conditions last seen in the late 1930s (or thereabouts).
        I accept that if Arctic ice does not continue to grow that the warmists will continue to push the Arctic ice lost for all that it is worth

      • I should have added in answer to your last question about the ‘pause’.
        Should the ‘pause’ not continue to grow, or should the ‘pause’ reduce in duration, of course, I will think again, and think about the implications and significance of that. I am not tied into any belief. I merely weigh the evidence. I merely test the predictions of the ‘theory’ against experiment/the observational data as Feynman suggests.
        I do, of course, take into account the quality of the data, and the realistic error bounds attached thereto which is one reason why I consider that a case can be run that Climate is sensitive to CO2, and that that sensitivity could be as high as about 1.5degC, although so far we have been unable to measure any sensitivity at all, and most data suggests that CO2 is the product of temperature change, not the driving cause of temperature.. .

      • seaice1. did you see my reply accepting your bet on the other thread ? as the northern hemisphere warms during the warm phase of oceanic oscillations summer melt increases a bit, in the cool periods it increases a bit. during the transitional phase between warm and cool it bounces around the bottom or the peak for a few years before establishing a trend. this is the period we are just leaving at the moment and an increasing trend will begin for arctic summer sea ice minimum.
        who knows whether it will hit the heady heights seen for large summer extent at the beginning of the satellite era, personally i hope not as i like the mild weather we have had for several years during uk winters. the planet has been warming since the last ice age, expectations of any rational person would be that within those oceanic cycles would be a general warming trend relating to leaving that ice age,so the arctic ice recovery may well not reach previous high summer extent levels .
        all imo of course, based on my own interpretation of the limited data we have. might well be wrong and happy to admit it if that is the case.

      • Bit chilly. I did – I responded there, but maybe too late for you to notice, or I did not notice your reply. Did you see the terms I was proposing? If the average of the minimum Arctic sea ice (15%) extent as reported by NSIDC for the next three years (2016-2018) is lower than the last three years I win, if it is higher, you win.
        I suggested asking Anthony Watts to hold the money, but maybe has has said he will not do that sort of thing, or maybe the hosting conditions prevent him doing so.

  13. Links between tropical Pacific seasonal, interannual and orbital variability during the Holocene

    The El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is the leading mode of interannual climate variability. However, it is unclear how ENSO has responded to external forcing, particularly orbitally induced changes in the amplitude of the seasonal cycle during the Holocene. Here we present a reconstruction of seasonal and interannual surface conditions in the tropical Pacific Ocean from a network of high-resolution coral and mollusc records that span discrete intervals of the Holocene. We identify several intervals of reduced variance in the 2 to 7 yr ENSO band that are not in phase with orbital changes in equatorial insolation, with a notable 64% reduction between 5,000 and 3,000 years ago. We compare the reconstructed ENSO variance and seasonal cycle with that simulated by nine climate models that include orbital forcing, and find that the models do not capture the timing or amplitude of ENSO variability, nor the mid-Holocene increase in seasonality seen in the observations; moreover, a simulated inverse relationship between the amplitude of the seasonal cycle and ENSO-related variance in sea surface temperatures is not found in our reconstructions. We conclude that the tropical Pacific climate is highly variable and subject to millennial scale quiescent periods. These periods harbour no simple link to orbital forcing, and are not adequately simulated by the current generation of models.

    • I had understood the pause to be the longest time you can extrapolate backwards and find no rise in temperature. By this definition the pause can shorten if the temperature goes up. Christopher Monckton himself said “”As ever, a warning about the current el Niño. It is becoming ever more likely that the temperature increase that usually accompanies an el Niño will begin to shorten the Pause somewhat…”

      • I agree that the ‘pause’ can shorten in the scenario that you suggest.
        Even if it shortens because of the scenario that you suggest (and I personally would not be at all surprised to see the ‘pause’ shorten over the next few months), it can once more lengthen (perhaps back to the 18 year 9 month figure, or even longer), if a following La Nina brings temperatures back down.
        The issue is whether there will be a long lasting change in temperature coincident with the current strong El Nino, or will that El Nino merely result in a short term peak such as was seen in say 2010.
        Obviously, no one yet knows the answer to this. We need to wait and see what happens over the next few years, and this will establish whether the ‘pause’ shortens (or is eroded altogether), or whether it remains of the same duration, or lengthens.
        Once we know what happens to the ‘pause’ we will be in a better position to judge why matters have unfolded as they have.

  14. Clams 21 Models 0 and the clams have possession
    The debate-has-ended crowd is leaving the stadium and the deadenders left early on.
    Who is that over the top assistant coach assaulting the refs?

  15. I agree that the ClimateGate email leaker is owed a big debt of gratitude from us all for saving us from what could have been serious consequences from the CAGW conference at Copenhagen. The Centralists had an opportunity then for the biggest power grab in world history. The failure was due to the ClimateGate email leaker. COP21 is a deflated balloon by comparison.

  16. ntesdorf:
    Climategate helped a lot but it was not decisive. The Chinese killed the AGW-scare at the Conference in Copenhagen, and they would have done that whether or not Climategate occurred.

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