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A successful prediction of the record CO2 rise associated with the 2015/2016 El Niño

Richard A. Betts, Chris D. Jones, Jeff R. Knight, Ralph F. Keeling, John J. Kennedy, Andrew J. Wiltshire, Robbie Andrew, Luiz E.O.C. Aragão

In early 2016, we predicted that the annual rise in carbon dioxide concentration at Mauna Loa would be the largest on record. Our forecast used a statistical relationship between observed and forecast sea surface temperatures in the Niño 3.4 region and the annual CO2 rise. Here, we provide a formal verification of that forecast. The observed rise of 3.4 ppm relative to 2015 was within the forecast range of 3.15 ± 0.53 ppm, so the prediction was successful. A global terrestrial biosphere model supports the expectation that the El Niño weakened the tropical land carbon sink. We estimate that the El Niño contributed approximately 25% to the record rise in CO2, with 75% due to anthropogenic emissions. The 2015/2016 CO2 rise was greater than that following the previous large El Niño in 1997/1998, because anthropogenic emissions had increased. We had also correctly predicted that 2016 would be the first year with monthly mean CO2 above 400 ppm all year round. We now estimate that atmospheric CO2 at Mauna Loa would have remained above 400 ppm all year round in 2016 even if the El Niño had not occurred, contrary to our previous expectations based on a simple extrapolation of previous trends.

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