National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration
United States Department of Commerce


FY 2021

ENSO and the carbon cycle

Betts, R., C. Burton, R. Feely, M. Collins, C. Jones, and A. Wiltshire

Chapter 20 in El Niño Southern Oscillation in a Changing Climate, M.J. McPhaden, A. Santoso, and W. Cai (eds.), Geophysical Monograph 253, American Geophysical Union, Wiley, 453–470, View online (2020)

Summary. Observational studies of atmospheric CO2, land ecosystems, and ocean processes show that variability in the carbon cycle is closely related with ENSO. Years with a warm anomaly in the tropical Pacific show a faster CO2 rise due to weaker land carbon sinks, particularly in the tropics, with a partial offset by stronger net uptake by oceans. The opposite happens in years with cool Pacific SST anomalies. This relationship holds for small ENSO SST anomalies as well as large ones and is robust enough for the annual CO2 growth rate anomaly to be highly predictable on the basis of SST observations and forecasts. Generally, variability in the land‐atmosphere carbon flux is mainly driven by physiological processes (photosynthesis and/or respiration), with a smaller contribution from fire. Fire was important in the 1997–1998 El Niño, making a major contribution to the CO2 rise, which can be viewed as anthropogenic in nature since the ignition was caused by humans. However, in the 2015–2016 El Niño event, the change in land carbon flux was mainly due to physiological processes, particularly reduced productivity. In the oceans, El Niño conditions involve decreased upwelling of carbon in the equatorial Pacific due to a weakening of the trade winds, causing this region to become a weaker sink of CO2, or near neutral if the El Niño event is strong. The year‐to‐year variations in the rate of CO2 rise can be successfully reconstructed and predicted on the basis of sea surface temperatures in the Pacific. ENSO‐CO2 relationships may also provide an emergent constraint on the strength of climate‐carbon cycle feedbacks on future anthropogenic climate change.

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