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The existence of El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) variability in past climates is still debated. Based on evidence from geological records indicating a different long-term mean climate in the tropical Pacific, a permanent El Niño state has been hyothesized to exist prior to the Plio-Pleistocene transition. However, model studies of past climate and geological records suggest that ENSO variability has existed on Earth as far back as in the Eocene and the Miocene. In the early-to-middle Miocene, climate was not only warmer than today, but oceanic gateways such as the Indonesian Passage and the Central American Seaway established deep connections between the main ocean basins. Here, we analyse the effect of increased levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases and open tropical gateways on the amplitude, period and pattern of ENSO variability using results of fully coupled climate model simulations. While our model shows only small changes in ENSO variability under increased greenhouse gas levels, it suggests a significantly stronger and less frequent ENSO due to altered oceanic gateways. In particular, a deeper and more open Indonesian Passage does not prevent a Western Pacific warm pool from developing, but it allows the warm pool to shift into the Indian Ocean.

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