The role of ocean dynamics in the optimal growth of tropical SST anomalies

Laure Zanna, Patrick Heimbach, Andrew M. Moore, Eli Tziperman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The role of ocean dynamics in optimally exciting interannual variability of tropical sea surface temperature (SST) anomalies is investigated using an idealized-geometry ocean general circulation model. Initial temperature and salinity perturbations leading to an optimal growth of tropical SST anomalies, typically arising from the nonnormal dynamics, are evaluated. The structure of the optimal perturbations is characterized by relatively strong deep salinity anomalies near the western boundary generating a transient amplification of equatorial SST anomalies in less than four years. The associated growth mechanism is linked to the excitation of coastal and equatorial Kelvin waves near the western boundary following a rapid geostrophic adjustment owing to the optimal initial temperature and salinity perturbations. The results suggest that the nonnormality of the ocean dynamics may efficiently create large tropical SST variability on interannual time scales in the Atlantic without the participation of air-sea processes or the meridional overturning circulation. An optimal deep initial salinity perturbation of 0.1 ppt located near the western boundary can result in a tropical SST anomaly of approximately 0.458C after nearly four years, assuming the dynamics are linear. Possible mechanisms for exciting such deep perturbations are discussed. While this study is motivated by tropical Atlantic SST variability, its relevance to other basins is not excluded. The optimal initial conditions leading to the tropical SST anomalies' growth are obtained by solving a generalized eigenvalue problem. The evaluation of the optimals is achieved by using the Massachusetts Institute of Technology general circulation model (MITgcm) tangent linear and adjoint models as well the the Arnoldi Package (ARPACK) software for solving large-scale eigenvalue problems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)983-1003
Number of pages21
JournalJournal of Physical Oceanography
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2010


  • Boundary currents
  • Dynamics
  • Interannual variability
  • Kelvin waves
  • Sea surface temperature

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oceanography


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