Diaz, H. F., and R. S. Pulwarty, 1994: An analysis of the time scales of variability in centuries-long ENSO-sensitive records in the last 1000 years. Climate Change, 26, 317-342. Reprinted in The Medieval Warm Period, M. K. Hughes and H. F. Diaz (Eds.), Kluwer Academic Publishers, 317-342.


We document the characteristic time scales of variability for seven climate indices whose time-dependent behavior is sensitive to some aspect of the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO). The ENSO sensitivity arises from the location of these long-term recores on the periphery of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Three of the indices are derived principally from historical sources, three others consist of tree-ring reconstructions (one of summer temperature, and the other two of winter rainfall), and one is an annual record of oxygen isotopic composition for a high-elevation glacier in Peru. Five of the seven indices sample at least portions of the Medieval Warm Period (~ A.D. 950 to 1250).

Time series spectral analysis was used to identify the major time scales of variability among the different indices. We focus on two principal time scales: a high frequency band (~ 2-10 yr), which comprises most of the variability found in the modern record of ENSO activity, and a low frequency band to highlight variations on decadal to century time scales (11 < P < 150 yr). This last spectral band contains variability on time scales that are of general interest with respecct to possible changes in large-scale air-sea exchanges. A technique called evolutive spectral analysis (ESA) is used to ascertain how stable each spectral peak is in time. Coherence and phase spectra are also calculated among the different indices over each full common period, and following a 91-yr window through time to examine whether the relationships change.

In general, spectral power on time scales of ~ 2-6 yr is statistically significant and persists throughout most of the time intervals sampled by the different indices. Assuming that the ENSO phenomenon is the source of much of the variability at these time scales, this indicates that ENSO has been an important part of interannual climatic variations over broad areas of the circum-Pacific region throughout the last millennium. Significant coherence values were found for El Niño and reconstructed Sierra Nevada winter precipitation at ~2-4 yr throughout much of their common record (late 1500s to present) and between 6 and 7 yr from the mid-18th to the early 20th century.

At decadal time scales each record generally tends to exhibit significant spectral power over different periods at different times. Both the Quelccaya Ice Cap δ18O series and the Quinn El Niño event record exhibit significant spectral power over frequencies ~ 35 to 45 yr; however, there is low coherence between these two time series at those frequencies over their common record. The Sierra Nevada winter rainfall reconstruction exhibits consistently strong variability at periods of ~ 30-60 yr.