EGU General Assembly 2020
© Author(s) 2020. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Dramatic reduction and quick recovery of the South Indian Ocean heat content and sea level in 2014-2019

Denis Volkov1,2, Michael Rudko1,2, and Sang-Ki Lee2
Denis Volkov et al.
  • 1Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies, University of Miami, Miami, Florida, United States of America (
  • 2NOAA Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory, Miami, Florida, United States of America

The interannual-to-decadal variability of heat content and sea level in the South Indian Ocean (SIO) is strongly influenced by its connection with the Pacific and large-scale climatic forcing in the Indo-Pacific region primarily associated with El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO). Besides the advection by the Indonesian Throughflow, signals generated in the Pacific can enter the SIO as coastally trapped Kelvin waves and propagate along the coast of Western Australia. In the southeast tropical and subtropical Indian Ocean, these signals along the eastern boundary can radiate westward as Rossby waves and eventually impact sea level and heat content in the SIO interior and near the western boundary. Local wind forcing, through Ekman pumping over the open ocean and coastal upwelling, is also able to generate Rossby waves and/or modify those emanated from the eastern boundary.

As measured by Argo floats and satellite altimetry, a decade-long increase of the upper-ocean heat content and sea level in the SIO in 2004-2013 ended with a remarkable drop returning to the initial values in 2004. This basin-wide heat release was associated with one of the strongest on record El Niño events in 2014-2016. Surprisingly, the basin-averaged heat content and sea level quickly recovered during the weak La Niña event in 2017-2019. Here we present an analysis of the evolution and mechanisms of 2014-2016 cooling and subsequent warming in the SIO subtropical gyre. We show that the 2014-2016 El Niño did contribute to the reduced heat content in the eastern SIO, while the local wind forcing (via increased Ekman upwelling) largely contributed to the heat reduction in the western SIO. We find no evidence to support that the 2017-2018 warming was forced by the weak La Niña, because the upper-ocean heat content in eastern SIO was still below normal during 2016-2018. The recovery largely occurred in the western SIO due to local wind forcing (via increased Ekman downwelling) primarily associated with changes in the strength of the southeasterly trade winds.

Because sea level is a good proxy for the oceanic heat content in the SIO, we extend our analysis back to 1993 using satellite altimetry records. Using a simple model of wind-forced Rossby waves, we estimate the relative contributions of sea level signals propagating from the eastern boundary, the origin of which is strongly linked to ENSO, and the local wind forcing in the SIO interior to the observed sea level variability. The local wind forcing appears to dominate the sea level (and, hence, the upper-ocean heat content) variability in the western SIO, especially in 2013-2019, while the ENSO-related signals are dominant in the eastern SIO. The local wind forcing over the SIO interior effectively suppressed the cooling associated with the most recent 2014-2016 El Niño event. In contrast, the cooling associated with the strongest on record 1997-1998 El Niño was amplified by the local wind forcing in the basin’s interior.

How to cite: Volkov, D., Rudko, M., and Lee, S.-K.: Dramatic reduction and quick recovery of the South Indian Ocean heat content and sea level in 2014-2019, EGU General Assembly 2020, Online, 4–8 May 2020, EGU2020-12760,, 2020

This abstract will not be presented.