Pam Grothe and Alyssa Atwood drill into a 5,000-year-old coral fossil on Kiritimati Island. Credit: Georgia Tech / Grothe / Cobb lab

El Ninos have been very intense in our times, which stands to worsen storms, drought, and coral bleaching in El Nino years. A new study has found compelling evidence in the Pacific Ocean that the stronger El Ninos are part of a climate pattern that is new, strange and appears unique to the industrial age.

This is the first known time that enough physical evidence spanning millennia has come together to allow researchers to say that definitively. The data show demonstrably that El Ninos, La Ninas, and the climate phenomenon that drives them have been swinging more broadly in the era of human-induced climate change.

“What we’re seeing in the last 50 years is outside any natural variability. It leaps off the baseline. Actually, we even see this for the entire period of the industrial age,” said Kim Cobb, the study’s principal investigator and Georgia Power Chair and ADVANCE Professor in the Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. “There were three extremely strong El Nino-La Nina events in the 50-year period, but it wasn’t just these events. The entire pattern stuck out.”

The study’s first author Pam Grothe compared temperature-dependent chemical deposits from present-day corals with those of older coral records representing relevant sea surface temperatures from the past 7,000 years. With the help of collaborators from Georgia Tech and partner research institutions, Grothe identified patterns of in the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO), swings of heating and cooling of equatorial Pacific waters that, every few years, spur El Ninos and La Ninas respectively.

The team found the industrial age ENSO swings to be 25% stronger than in the pre-industrial records. The researchers published their results in the journal Geophysical Review Letters in October 2019. The work was funded by the National Science Foundation.

The evidence had slumbered in and around shallow Pacific waters, where ENSO and El Ninos originate, until Cobb and her students plunged hollow drill bits into living coral colonies and fossil coral deposits to extract it. In more than 20 years of field expeditions, they collected cores that contained hundreds of records.

The corals’ recordings of sea surface temperatures proved to be astonishingly accurate when benchmarked. Coral records from 1981 to 2015 matched sea surface temperatures measured via satellite in the same period so exactly that, on a graph, the jagged lines of the coral record covered those of the satellite measurements, obscuring them from view.

“When I present it to people, I always get asked, ‘Where’s the temperature measurement?’ I tell them it’s there, but you can’t see it because the corals’ records of sea surface temperatures are that good,” said Grothe, a former graduate research assistant in Cobb’s lab and now an associate professor at the University of Mary Washington.

In 2018, enough coral data had amassed to distinguish ENSO’s recent activity from its natural preindustrial patterns.

To stress-test the data, Grothe left out chunks to see if the industrial age ENSO signal still stuck out. She removed the record-setting 1997/1998 El Nino-La Nina and examined industrial age windows of time between 30 and 100 years long.

The signal held in all windows, but the data needed the 97/98 event to be statistically significant. This could mean that changes in the ENSO activities have just now reached a threshold that makes them detectable.

Every two to seven years in spring, an El Nino is born when the warm phase of the ENSO swells into a long heat blob in the tropical Pacific, typically peaking in early winter. It blows through oceans and air around the world, ginning up deluges, winds, heat, or cold in unusual places.

Once El Nino passes, the cycle reverses into La Nina by the following fall, when airstreams push hot water westward and dredge up frigid water in the equatorial Pacific. This triggers a different set of global weather extremes.

Tropical Pacific corals record the hot-cold oscillations by absorbing less of an oxygen isotope (O18) during ENSO’s hot phases, and progressively more of it during ENSO’s cool phases. As corals grow, they create layers of oxygen isotope records, chronicles of temperature history.

Extracting them is adventurous: A research diver guides a chest-high pneumatic drill under the ocean. Its pressure hose connects to a motor on the boat that powers the drill after the diver has taken off her fins and weighed herself down on the reef.

She carefully angles the bit down the axis of coral growth to get a core with layers that can be accurately counted back in time. On occasion, waves put her and her safety diver through washing machine cycles.

“Doing this all underwater adds an extra level of difficulty, even from the simplest tasks like working with wrenches,” Grothe said. “But the drill slices through underwater corals like butter. Fossil corals are drilled on land, and the drill constantly seizes up and overheats.”

The physical proof taken from three islands that dot the heart of the ENSO zone has also thrown down scientific gauntlets, starkly challenging computer models of ENSO patterns and causes. A prime example: Previously unknown to science, the study showed that in a period from 3,000 to 5,000 years ago, the El Nino-La Nina oscillations were extremely mild.

“Maybe there’s no good explanation for a cause. Maybe it just happened,” Cobb said. “Maybe El Nino can just enter a mode and get stuck in it for a millennium.”

These researchers coauthored the study: Giovanni Liguori, Emanuele Di Lorenzo, Jean Lynch-Stieglitz, Hussein Sayani, Kayla Townsend, Melat Hagos, and Gemma O’Connor from Georgia Tech; Antonietta Capotondi from the NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory; Yanbin Lu and Lawrence Edwards from the University of Minnesota; Hai Cheng from the University of Minnesota and Xi’an Jiaotong University; John Southon and Guaciara Santos from the University of California, Irvine; Daniel Deocampo from Georgia State University; Tianran Chen from the Chinese Academy of Sciences; Diane M. Thompson from the University of Arizona; Jessica Conroy from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Andrea Moore from the University of Mary Washington, and Lauren Toth from the U.S. Geological Survey. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation (awards 1502832, 1446343, 1029020, and 1349599), the National Science Foundation of China (award 41888101), NOAA’s Climate Program Office and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, U.S. Geological Survey and National Science Foundation (award 1535007), and a Sigma Delta Epsilon-Graduate Women in Science fellowship. Any findings, conclusions, or recommendations are those of the authors and not necessarily shared by the funding agencies.

El Nino 1997 (l.), El Nino 2015 (r.) Credit: NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration)

In scuba gear, Georgia Tech professor Kim Cobb drills into corals in the tropical Pacific with a pneumatic coring drill to take samples for studies on recent and historic sea surface temperatures. Cobb is Georgia Power Chair and ADVANCE Professor in the Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. Credit: Georgia Tech / Cobb lab

Pam Grothe walks over a patch of fossil coral rubble on Kiritimati Island. Credit: Georgia Tech / Grothe / Cobb lab

Weather events in strong El Nino years are generally more extreme in North America than in mild El Nino Years. Credit: NOAA

GTRI researchers and scientists welcomed Georgia Tech undergraduate students this summer during the Undergraduate Research Internship Program, where they worked on 3D-printed modular medical imaging devices and more.

Corals exude chemical defenses against bacteria, but when heated in the lab, those defenses lost much potency against a pathogen common in coral bleaching. There's hope: A key coral's defense was heartier when that coral was taken from an area where fishing was banned and plenty of fish were left to eat away seaweed that was overgrowing corals elsewhere.

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