Trenberth, who was not involved with the research, still has concerns about the models used in the research, which he says are “the same flawed models used before.” He argues that the models do a poor job of capturing some of the impacts of El Niño events — even “regular” ones — and the way they’re influenced by temperature and moisture in the atmosphere.

But Cai says he believes the study’s results are “believable” and that there are mechanisms to explain them. Because of the influence of climate change, the eastern equatorial Pacific is warming quickly, he said. As a result, it’s becoming easier for the critical centers of convection, or heat exchange, which affect global weather patterns, to move from west to east across the Pacific as they do during El Niño events.

The timing of El Niño events in the future will depend on factors including natural climate variations and weather patterns. Scientists are still working on figuring out better ways to predict El Niño before it hits, but for the time being, it’s often difficult to see it coming too far in advance. But over the course of a century, the study suggests we’ll see more of them as the climate continues to warm — and even after it stabilizes — even if we don’t know exactly when they’ll be coming.

And Cai noted that the findings also beg the question of what other types of climate effects might continue to evolve long after we stop emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, whenever that may be. If El Niño is so severely affected, even at a 1.5-degree threshold, fluctuating temperature patterns in the Indian and Atlantic oceans may also be at risk of long-term changes under global warming, Cai suggested.

“Those are the questions scientists need to ask,” he said.