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Original article (peer-reviewed)

Volume (Issue) 120(2)
Page(s) 1353 - 1374
DOI 10.1002/2014jc010531

Open Access


Much of the observed interannual variability in the physical and biogeochemical state of the California Current System (CalCS) is associated with El Ni~no Southern Oscillation. Yet it is unclear whether this is primarily a result of atmospheric teleconnections forcing the ocean locally through changes in wind and fluxes of heat and freshwater, or whether this is a consequence of oceanic interior processes that transport tropical variability through, e.g., coastally trapped waves to the region. Here we investigate the relative contribution of these two mechanisms in the CalCS using a novel setup of the Regional Oceanic Modeling System coupled to a biogeochemical/ecological model. We conducted a hindcast simulation over the period 1979–2013 and contrast the results with those from sensitivity simulations with climatological atmospheric boundary conditions either for the U.S. West Coast or the rest of the Pacific. We find that remote forcing dominates the variability of the physical state in the nearshore region of the CalCS, explaining up to 80% of monthly mean sea-surface height and temperature variability. In contrast, local processes tend to drive variations in the biogeochemical/ecological state, particularly along central and northern California, explaining up to 50% of the observed surface variability. Most of the remote forcing is a consequence of coastally trapped waves that travel northward at speeds of approximately 230 km d21, and thereby alter sea-level height, thermocline structure, and upwelling along California. Biogeochemically active tracers respond to this remote forcing as well, especially at depth, but are more strongly modulated by local atmospheric forcing, especially variations in upwelling-favorable winds.