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Decadal Variability in the Large-Scale Sea Surface Height Field of the South Pacific Ocean: Observations and Causes

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

Large-scale sea surface height (SSH) changes in the extraequatorial South Pacific Ocean are investigated using satellite altimetry data of the past 12 yr. The decadal SSH signals in the 1990s were dominated by an increasing trend in the 30°–50°S band and a decreasing trend in the central South Pacific Ocean poleward of 50°S. In recent years since 2002 there has been a reversal in both of these trends. Spatially varying low-frequency SSH signals are also found in the tropical region of 10°–25°S where the decadal SSH trend is negative in the eastern basin, but positive in the western basin. To clarify the causes for these observed spatially varying SSH signals, a 1½-layer reduced-gravity model that includes the wind-driven baroclinic Rossby wave dynamics and the responses forced by SSH changes along the South American coast was adopted. The model hindcasts the spatially varying decadal trends in the midlatitude and the eastern tropical regions well. Accumulation of the wind-forced SSH anomalies along Rossby wave characteristics is found to be important for both previously reported long-term trends and their reversals in recent years. The boundary forcing associated with the time-varying SSH signals along the South American coast is crucial for understanding the observed SSH signals of all time scales in the eastern tropical South Pacific basin, but it has little impact upon the midlatitude interior SSH signals.

Corresponding author address: Dr. Bo Qiu, Department of Oceanography, University of Hawaii at Manoa, 1000 Pope Road, Honolulu, HI 96822. Email: bo@soest.hawaii.edu

Abstract

Large-scale sea surface height (SSH) changes in the extraequatorial South Pacific Ocean are investigated using satellite altimetry data of the past 12 yr. The decadal SSH signals in the 1990s were dominated by an increasing trend in the 30°–50°S band and a decreasing trend in the central South Pacific Ocean poleward of 50°S. In recent years since 2002 there has been a reversal in both of these trends. Spatially varying low-frequency SSH signals are also found in the tropical region of 10°–25°S where the decadal SSH trend is negative in the eastern basin, but positive in the western basin. To clarify the causes for these observed spatially varying SSH signals, a 1½-layer reduced-gravity model that includes the wind-driven baroclinic Rossby wave dynamics and the responses forced by SSH changes along the South American coast was adopted. The model hindcasts the spatially varying decadal trends in the midlatitude and the eastern tropical regions well. Accumulation of the wind-forced SSH anomalies along Rossby wave characteristics is found to be important for both previously reported long-term trends and their reversals in recent years. The boundary forcing associated with the time-varying SSH signals along the South American coast is crucial for understanding the observed SSH signals of all time scales in the eastern tropical South Pacific basin, but it has little impact upon the midlatitude interior SSH signals.

Corresponding author address: Dr. Bo Qiu, Department of Oceanography, University of Hawaii at Manoa, 1000 Pope Road, Honolulu, HI 96822. Email: bo@soest.hawaii.edu

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