Interannual variability of sea level in the southern Indian Ocean: Local vs. remote forcing mechanisms

Marion Kersalé, Denis L. Volkov, Kandaga Pujiana, Hong Zhang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The subtropical southern Indian Ocean (SIO) has been described as one of the world's largest heat accumulators due to its remarkable warming during the past 2 decades. However, the relative contributions of remote (of Pacific origin) forcing and local wind forcing to the variability of heat content and sea level in the SIO have not been fully attributed. Here, we combine a general circulation model, an analytic linear reduced-gravity model, and observations to disentangle the spatial and temporal inputs of each forcing component on interannual to decadal timescales. A sensitivity experiment is conducted with artificially closed Indonesian straits to physically isolate the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean, intentionally removing the Indonesian Throughflow (ITF) influence on the Indian Ocean heat content and sea level variability. We show that the relative contribution of the signals originating in the equatorial Pacific vs. signals caused by local wind forcing to the interannual variability of sea level and heat content in the SIO is dependent on location within the basin (low latitude vs. midlatitude and western side vs. eastern side of the basin). The closure of the ITF in the numerical experiment reduces the amplitude of interannual-to-decadal sea level changes compared to the simulation with a realistic ITF. However, the spatial and temporal evolution of sea level patterns in the two simulations remain similar and correlated with El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO). This suggests that these patterns are mostly determined by local wind forcing and oceanic processes, linked to ENSO via the "atmospheric bridge"effect. We conclude that local wind forcing is an important driver for the interannual changes of sea level, heat content, and meridional transports in the SIO subtropical gyre, while oceanic signals originating in the Pacific amplify locally forced signals.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)193-212
Number of pages20
JournalOcean Science
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 10 2022
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oceanography
  • Palaeontology


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