Articles | Volume 11, issue 12
Research article
18 Dec 2015
Research article |  | 18 Dec 2015

The influence of non-stationary teleconnections on palaeoclimate reconstructions of ENSO variance using a pseudoproxy framework

R. Batehup, S. McGregor, and A. J. E. Gallant

Abstract. Reconstructions of the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) ideally require high-quality, annually resolved and long-running palaeoclimate proxy records in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, located in ENSO's centre of action. However, to date, the palaeoclimate records that have been extracted in the region are short or temporally and spatially sporadic, limiting the information that can be provided by these reconstructions. Consequently, most ENSO reconstructions exploit the downstream influences of ENSO on remote locations, known as teleconnections, where longer records from palaeoclimate proxies exist. However, using teleconnections to reconstruct ENSO relies on the assumption that the relationship between ENSO and the remote location is stationary in time. Increasing evidence from observations and climate models suggests that some teleconnections are, in fact, non-stationary, potentially threatening the validity of those palaeoclimate reconstructions that exploit teleconnections.

This study examines the implications of non-stationary teleconnections on modern multi-proxy reconstructions of ENSO variance. The sensitivity of the reconstructions to non-stationary teleconnections were tested using a suite of idealised pseudoproxy experiments that employed output from a fully coupled global climate model. Reconstructions of the variance in the Niño 3.4 index representing ENSO variability were generated using four different methods. Surface temperature data from the GFDL CM2.1 were used as pseudoproxies for these reconstruction methods. As well as sensitivity of the reconstruction to the method, the experiments tested the sensitivity of the reconstruction to the number of non-stationary pseudoproxies and the location of these proxies.

We find that non-stationarities can act to degrade the skill of ENSO variance reconstructions. However, when global, randomly spaced networks (assuming a minimum of approximately 20 proxies) were employed, the resulting pseudoproxy ENSO reconstructions were not sensitive to non-stationary teleconnections. Neglecting proxies from ENSO's centre of action still produced skilful reconstructions, but with a lower likelihood. Different reconstruction methods exhibited varying sensitivities to non-stationary pseudoproxies, which affected the robustness of the resulting reconstructions. The results suggest that caution should be taken when developing reconstructions using proxies from a single teleconnected region, or those that use less than 20 source proxies.

Short summary
Climate indices of the past are often reconstructed using proxy information from various locations and it is assumed that the relationship between the two does not change over time. As this assumption has been recently questioned, we use a climate model to examine the effect of these changing relationships on the skill of El Nino-Southern Oscillation variance reconstructions. Our study finds that these changes reduce reconstruction skill, while also showing how this impact can be mitigated.