El Niño-Southern Oscillation variability during the Little Ice Age and medieval climate anomaly reconstructed from fossil coral geochemistry and pseudoproxy analysis
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The El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) dominates global interannual climate variability. However, the imprint of anthropogenic climate change hinders understanding of natural ENSO variability. Model predictions of the response of future ENSO variability to anthropogenic forcing are highly uncertain. A better understanding of how ENSO operates during different mean climate states may improve predictions of its future behavior. This study develops a technique to quantify the response of tropical Pacific sea surface temperature and salinity to ENSO variations. This analysis defines expected regional relationships between ENSO forcing and the tropical Pacific climate response. For example, the western tropical Pacific records El Niño events with greater skill than La Niña events; whereas the oceans near the South Pacific Convergence Zone (SPCZ) preferentially record La Niña events. This baseline understanding of regional skill calibrates interpretations of both modern and pre-instrumental coral geochemical climate proxy records. A suite of monthly resolved 18O variations in a fossil corals (Porites spp.) from the tropical western Pacific (Papua New Guinea) and the SPCZ (Vanuatu) are used to develop case studies of ENSO variability under external forcing conditions that differ from the modern climate. A record from Misima, Papua New Guinea (1411-1644 CE) spans a period of reduced solar forcing that coincides with the initiation of the Little Ice Age. This record indicates that the surface ocean in this region experienced a small change in hydrologic balance with no change in temperature, extended periods of quiescence in El Niño activity, reduced mean El Niño event amplitudes, and fewer large amplitude El Niño events relative to signals captured in regional modern records. Several multidecadal (~30-50 year) coral records from Tasmaloum, Vanuatu during the Medieval Climate Anomaly (~900-1300 CE), a period of increased solar forcing, depict ENSO variability that is generally lower than modern times. However, these records often cannot be distinguished from 20th century ENSO variability due to ENSO variability uncertainty associated with record lengths. Neither record can be tied to concurrent changes in solar or volcanic forcing, calling into question the paradigm of ENSO variability being predominantly mediated by external forcing changes on multidecadal time scales.