Reconstructing past changes in El Niño-Southern Oscillation variability using geochemical proxies from corals




Lawman, Allison E.

Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



The El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is the leading mode of interannual (>1-9 year) climate variability and has far-reaching impacts on global temperature and rainfall patterns. That said, the instrumental record of ENSO does not have the temporal coverage necessary to characterize the full range of natural variability. Uncertainties about how ENSO variability may change in the future with anthropogenic warming motivates the study of past climate conditions when the Earth experienced different climate conditions compared to the warm, rapidly changing climate of today. Climate scientists use two primary tools to study past climate. First, general circulation models use mathematical equations based on physical principles to simulate different aspects of the climate system, including the ocean, atmosphere, land, and ice sheets. Second, various geological archives like corals, cave stalagmites and lake and ocean sediment also provide clues about how the climate varied in the past. The paleoclimate proxy records generated from geological archives thus provide independent validation of paleoclimate model simulations. Geochemical proxy records from corals are particularly well-suited for investigating past (paleo) ENSO variability as corals can provide decades to hundreds of years of climate information from the tropics at sub-annual resolution. This dissertation seeks to quantify changes in paleo-ENSO variability using geochemical proxies from corals. I first generate replicated coral records from Vanuatu in the southwest Pacific to investigate the range of ENSO variability during the 20th century and ~900 years during a time interval called the Medieval Climate Anomaly. The paleo-temperature records are based on the ratio of strontium to calcium (Sr/Ca) of massive Porites corals from Vanuatu. Next, I develop various computational algorithms to investigate how different uncertainties inherent to the coral archive impact the ability of a coral to capture changes in ENSO variability. The algorithms incorporate the impact of variable growth rates, analytical and calibration errors, and age model assumptions, and are collectively referred to a coral proxy system model (PSM). The utility of the coral PSM is demonstrated using unforced climate model output for the last millennium. I then use the PSM and apply the analytical techniques developed in the first two projects to investigate simulated and coral proxy-inferred changes in paleo-ENSO variability during the Holocene (11.65 thousand years ago to the present). The resulting model-data comparison provides a new perspective on long-term changes in ENSO variability.


LCSH Subject Headings