A 12-Million-Year Temperature History of the Tropical Pacific Ocean

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Science  04 Apr 2014:
Vol. 344, Issue 6179, pp. 84-87
DOI: 10.1126/science.1246172

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Old Gradients

The surface ocean temperature gradient between the warmer Western Equatorial Pacific and the cooler Eastern Equatorial Pacific is smaller during El Niño episodes than during neutral periods or during La Niñas. Some reconstructions of Pacific Ocean sea surface temperatures (SST) covering periods before ∼3 million years ago have suggested a permanent El Niño–like state. Zhang et al. (p. 84; see the Perspective by Lea) present data from a biomarker-derived proxy for SST that indicate a sizable east-west gradient has existed for the past 12 million years, contradicting the concept of a permanent El Niño–like state existed.


The appearance of permanent El Niño–like conditions prior to 3 million years ago is founded on sea-surface temperature (SST) reconstructions that show invariant Pacific warm pool temperatures and negligible equatorial zonal temperature gradients. However, only a few SST records are available, and these are potentially compromised by changes in seawater chemistry, diagenesis, and calibration limitations. For this study, we establish new biomarker-SST records and show that the Pacific warm pool was ~4°C warmer 12 million years ago. Both the warm pool and cold tongue slowly cooled toward modern conditions while maintaining a zonal temperature gradient of ~3°C in the late Miocene, which increased during the Plio-Pleistocene. Our results contrast with previous temperature reconstructions that support the supposition of a permanent El Niño–like state.

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