Decadal Variability of the Pacific Shallow Overturning Circulation and the Role of Local Wind Forcing
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Decadal Variability of the Pacific Shallow Overturning Circulation and the Role of Local Wind Forcing

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  • Journal Title:
    Journal of Climate
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    The Pacific shallow meridional overturning circulations, known as subtropical cells (STCs), link subduction in the subtropical regions to equatorial upwelling, suggesting the possibility for subtropical winds to influence equatorial sea surface temperatures (SSTs) by altering the STCs’ strength. Indeed, STC variability provides the basis for one of the mechanisms proposed to explain the origin of tropical Pacific decadal variability (TPDV). While the relationship between STC strength, as measured by their subsurface transport convergence, and equatorial SST variations is well documented, the location of the wind forcing most influential on STC variability is still being debated. In this study, we use the output of an ocean reanalysis to examine tropical Pacific Ocean surface and subsurface decadal changes during recent decades and relate them to STC variability and surface wind forcing. Our results indicate that the STC interior transport at each latitude is largely controlled by the wind forcing at that latitude rather than induced by remote subtropical wind variations. We also show that the establishment of the anomalous transport at each latitude is associated with the westward propagation of oceanic wind-forced Rossby waves, as part of the ocean adjustment process that also leads to a zonal redistribution of upper-ocean heat content at both interannual and decadal time scales. These results provide guidance for understanding the origin of TPDV by elucidating the underlying dynamics of STC variability and can have practical implications for monitoring STC variability in the tropical Pacific. Significance Statement Slow variations of the surface ocean temperature in the tropical Pacific Ocean have been shown to affect the global climate. Our study aims at better understanding the origin of these temperature anomalies by taking a closer look at the upper ocean circulation variability and its relationship with surface wind forcing. Unlike previous studies, which have related the upper ocean circulation changes to wind variations outside the tropical Pacific, we show here that the variations in upper-ocean circulation are primarily driven by local winds. This result not only clarifies which winds are most important, but also suggests a practical approach for monitoring circulation changes from surface observations.
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    Journal of Climate, 36(3), 1001-1015
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