Research Article

Influence of El Niño on atmospheric CO2 over the tropical Pacific Ocean: Findings from NASA’s OCO-2 mission

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Science  13 Oct 2017:
Vol. 358, Issue 6360, eaam5776
DOI: 10.1126/science.aam5776

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Structured Abstract


The Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) is NASA’s first satellite designed to measure atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) with the precision, resolution, and coverage necessary to quantify regional carbon sources and sinks. OCO-2 launched on 2 July 2014, and during the first 2 years of its operation, a major El Niño occurred: the 2015–2016 El Niño, which was one of the strongest events ever recorded.

El Niño and its cold counterpart La Niña (collectively known as the El Niño–Southern Oscillation or ENSO) are the dominant modes of tropical climate variability. ENSO originates in the tropical Pacific Ocean but spurs a variety of anomalous weather patterns around the globe. Not surprisingly, it also leaves an imprint on the global carbon cycle. Understanding the magnitude and phasing of the ENSO-CO2 relationship has important implications for improving the predictability of carbon-climate feedbacks.

The high-density observations from NASA’s OCO-2 mission, coupled with surface ocean CO2 measurements from NOAA buoys, have provided us with a unique data set to track the atmospheric CO2 concentrations and unravel the timing of the response of the ocean and the terrestrial carbon cycle during the 2015–2016 El Niño.


During strong El Niño events, there is an overall increase in global atmospheric CO2 concentrations. This increase is predominantly due to the response of the terrestrial carbon cycle to El Niño–induced changes in weather patterns. But along with the terrestrial component, the tropical Pacific Ocean also plays an important role. Typically, the tropical Pacific Ocean is a source of CO2 to the atmosphere due to equatorial upwelling that brings CO2-rich water from the interior ocean to the surface. During El Niño, this equatorial upwelling is suppressed in the eastern and the central Pacific Ocean, reducing the supply of CO2 to the surface. If CO2 fluxes were to remain constant elsewhere, this reduction in ocean-to-atmosphere CO2 fluxes should contribute to a slowdown in the growth of atmospheric CO2. This hypothesis cannot be verified, however, without large-scale CO2 observations over the tropical Pacific Ocean.


OCO-2 observations confirm that the tropical Pacific Ocean played an early and important role in the response of atmospheric CO2 concentrations to the 2015–2016 El Niño. By analyzing trends in the time series of atmospheric CO2, we see clear evidence of an initial decrease in atmospheric CO2 concentrations over the tropical Pacific Ocean, specifically during the early stages of the El Niño event (March through July 2015). Atmospheric CO2 concentration anomalies suggest a flux reduction of 26 to 54% that is validated by the NOAA Tropical Atmosphere Ocean (TAO) mooring CO2 data. Both the OCO-2 and TAO data further show that the reduction in ocean-to-atmosphere fluxes is spatially variable and has strong gradients across the tropical Pacific Ocean.

During the later stages of the El Niño (August 2015 and later), the OCO-2 observations register a rise in atmospheric CO2 concentrations. We attribute this increase to the response from the terrestrial component of the carbon cycle—a combination of reduction in biospheric uptake of CO2 over pan-tropical regions and an enhancement in biomass burning emissions over Southeast Asia and Indonesia. The net impact of the 2015–2016 El Niño event on the global carbon cycle is an increase in atmospheric CO2 concentrations, which would likely be larger if it were not for the reduction in outgassing from the ocean.


The strong El Niño event of 2015–2016 provided us with an opportunity to study how the global carbon cycle responds to a change in the physical climate system. Space-based observations of atmospheric CO2, such as from OCO-2, allow us to observe and monitor the temporal sequence of El Niño–induced changes in CO2 concentrations. Disentangling the timing of the ocean and terrestrial responses is the first step toward interpreting their relative contribution to the global atmospheric CO2 growth rate, and thereby understanding the sensitivity of the carbon cycle to climate forcing on interannual to decadal time scales.

NASA’s carbon sleuth tracks the influence of El Niño on atmospheric CO2.

The tropical Pacific Ocean, the center of action during an El Niño event, is shown in cross section. Warm ocean surface temperatures are shown in red, cooler waters in blue. The Niño 3.4 region, which scientists use to study the El Niño, is denoted by yellow dashed lines. As a result of OCO-2’s global coverage and 16-day repeat cycle, it flies over the entire region every few days, keeping tabs on the changes in atmospheric CO2 concentration.


Spaceborne observations of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 are used to characterize the response of tropical atmospheric CO2 concentrations to the strong El Niño event of 2015–2016. Although correlations between the growth rate of atmospheric CO2 concentrations and the El Niño–Southern Oscillation are well known, the magnitude of the correlation and the timing of the responses of oceanic and terrestrial carbon cycle remain poorly constrained in space and time. We used space-based CO2 observations to confirm that the tropical Pacific Ocean does play an early and important role in modulating the changes in atmospheric CO2 concentrations during El Niño events—a phenomenon inferred but not previously observed because of insufficient high-density, broad-scale CO2 observations over the tropics.

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