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A Shift in Western Tropical Pacific Sea Level Trends during the 1990s

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  • 1 University of Hawaii at Manoa, Honolulu, Hawaii
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Abstract

Pacific Ocean sea surface height trends from satellite altimeter observations for 1993–2009 are examined in the context of longer tide gauge records and wind stress patterns. The dominant regional trends are high rates in the western tropical Pacific and minimal to negative rates in the eastern Pacific, particularly off North America. Interannual sea level variations associated with El Niño–Southern Oscillation events do not account for these trends. In the western tropical Pacific, tide gauge records indicate that the recent high rates represent a significant trend increase in the early 1990s relative to the preceding 40 years. This sea level trend shift in the western Pacific corresponds to an intensification of the easterly trade winds across the tropical Pacific. The wind change appears to be distinct from climate variations centered in the North Pacific, such as the Pacific decadal oscillation. In the eastern Pacific, tide gauge records exhibit higher-amplitude decadal fluctuations than in the western tropical Pacific, and the recent negative sea level trends are indistinguishable from these fluctuations. The shifts in trade wind strength and western Pacific sea level rate resemble changes in dominant global modes of outgoing longwave radiation and sea surface temperature. It is speculated that the western Pacific sea level response indicates a general strengthening of the atmospheric circulation over the tropical Pacific since the early 1990s that has developed in concert with recent warming trends.

Corresponding author address: Mark A. Merrifield, Dept. of Oceanography, University of Hawaii at Manoa, 1000 Pope Rd., MSB 317, Honolulu, HI 96822. E-mail: lmarkm@soest.hawaii.edu

Abstract

Pacific Ocean sea surface height trends from satellite altimeter observations for 1993–2009 are examined in the context of longer tide gauge records and wind stress patterns. The dominant regional trends are high rates in the western tropical Pacific and minimal to negative rates in the eastern Pacific, particularly off North America. Interannual sea level variations associated with El Niño–Southern Oscillation events do not account for these trends. In the western tropical Pacific, tide gauge records indicate that the recent high rates represent a significant trend increase in the early 1990s relative to the preceding 40 years. This sea level trend shift in the western Pacific corresponds to an intensification of the easterly trade winds across the tropical Pacific. The wind change appears to be distinct from climate variations centered in the North Pacific, such as the Pacific decadal oscillation. In the eastern Pacific, tide gauge records exhibit higher-amplitude decadal fluctuations than in the western tropical Pacific, and the recent negative sea level trends are indistinguishable from these fluctuations. The shifts in trade wind strength and western Pacific sea level rate resemble changes in dominant global modes of outgoing longwave radiation and sea surface temperature. It is speculated that the western Pacific sea level response indicates a general strengthening of the atmospheric circulation over the tropical Pacific since the early 1990s that has developed in concert with recent warming trends.

Corresponding author address: Mark A. Merrifield, Dept. of Oceanography, University of Hawaii at Manoa, 1000 Pope Rd., MSB 317, Honolulu, HI 96822. E-mail: lmarkm@soest.hawaii.edu
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