• El Niño;
  • climate change;
  • decadal ocean variability

[1] This paper addresses the question of whether the increased occurrence of central Pacific (CP) versus Eastern Pacific (EP) El Niños is consistent with greenhouse gas forced changes in the background state of the tropical Pacific as inferred from global climate change models. Our analysis uses high-quality satellite and in situ ocean data combined with wind data from atmospheric reanalyses for the past 31 years (1980–2010). We find changes in background conditions that are opposite to those expected from greenhouse gas forcing in climate models and opposite to what is expected if changes in the background state are mediating more frequent occurrences of CP El Niños. A plausible interpretation of these results is that the character of El Niño over the past 31 years has varied naturally and that these variations projected onto changes in the background state because of the asymmetric spatial structures of CP and EP El Niños.