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The circulation of the eastern tropical Pacific: A review

W. S. Kessler

NOAA/Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, Seattle, Washington

Prog. Oceanogr., 69, 181–217, 2006.
Copyright ©2006 Elsevier Science Ltd. Further electronic distribution is not allowed.


During the 1950s and 1960s, an extensive field study and interpretive effort was made by researchers, primarily at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, to sample and understand the physical oceanography of the eastern tropical Pacific. That work was inspired by the valuable fisheries of the region, the recent discovery of the equatorial undercurrent, and the growing realization of the importance of the El Niño phenomenon. Here we review what was learned in that effort, and integrate those findings with work published since then as well as additional diagnoses based on modern data sets.

Unlike the central Pacific, where the winds are nearly zonal and the ocean properties and circulation are nearly independent of longitude, the eastern tropical Pacific is distinguished by wind forcing that is strongly influenced by the topography of the American continent. Its circulation is characterized by short zonal scales, permanent eddies and significant off-equatorial upwelling. Notably, the Costa Rica Dome and a thermocline bowl to its northwest are due to winds blowing through gaps in the Central American cordillera, which imprint their signatures on the ocean through linear Sverdrup dynamics. Strong annual modulation of the gap winds and the meridional oscillation of the Intertropical Convergence Zone generates a Rossby wave, superimposed on the direct forcing, that results in a southwestward-propagating annual thermocline signal accounting for major features of observed thermocline depth variations, including that of the Costa Rica Dome, the Tehuantepec bowl, and the ridge-trough system of the North Equatorial Countercurrent (NECC). Interannual variability of sea surface temperature (SST) and altimetric sea surface height signals suggests that the strengthening of the NECC observed in the central Pacific during El Niño events continues all the way to the coast, warming SST (by zonal advection) in a wider meridional band than the equatorially trapped thermocline anomalies, and pumping equatorial water poleward along the coast.

The South Equatorial Current originates as a combination of equatorial upwelling, mixing and advection from the NECC, and Peru coastal upwelling, but its sources and their variability remain unresolved. Similarly, while much of the Equatorial Undercurrent flows southeast into the Peru Undercurrent and supplies the coastal upwelling, a quantitative assessment is lacking. We are still unable to put together the eastern interconnections among the long zonal currents of the central Pacific.

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