Sea-Level Height as a proxy for ENSO

Sea-level height has several scales. At the daily scale it represents the well-known lunisolar tidal cycle. At a multi-decadal, long-term scale it represents behaviors such as global warming. In between these two scales is what often appears to be noisy fluctuations to the untrained eye. Yet it’s fairly well-accepted [1] that much of this fluctuation is due to the side-effects of alternating La Nina and El Nino cycles (aka ENSO, the El Nino Southern Oscillation), as represented by measures such as NINO34 and SOI.

To see how startingly aligned this mapping is, consider the SLH readings from Ft. Denison in Sydney Harbor. The interval from 1980 to 2012 is shown below, along with a fit used recently to model ENSO.

(click to expand chart)

I chose a shorter interval to somewhat isolate the trend from a secular sea-level rise due to AGW. The last point is 2012 because tide gauge data collection ended then.

As cross-validation, this fit is extrapolated backwards to show how it matches the historic SOI cycles

Much of the fine structure aligns well, indicating that intrinsically the dynamics behind sea-level-height at this scale are due to ENSO changes, associated with the inverted barometer effect. The SOI is essentially the pressure differential between Darwin and Tahiti, so the prevailing atmospheric pressure occurring during varying ENSO conditions follows the rising or lowering Sydney Harbor sea-level in a synchronized fashion. The change is 1 cm for a 1 mBar change in pressure, so that with the SOI extremes showing 14 mBar variation at the Darwin location, this accounts for a 14 cm change in sea-level, roughly matching that shown in the first chart. Note that being a differential measurement, SOI does not suffer from long-term secular changes in trend.

Yet, the unsaid implication in all this is that not only are the daily variations in SLH due to lunar and solar cyclic tidal forces, but so are these monthly to decadal variations. The longstanding impediment is that oceanographers have not been able to solve Laplace’s Tidal Equations that reflected the non-linear character of the ocean’s response to the long-period lunisolar forcing. Once that’s been analytically demonstrated, we can observe that both SLH and ENSO share essentially identical lunisolar forcing (see chart below), arising from that same common-mode linked mechanism.

Many geographically located tidal gauge readings are available from the Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level (PSMSL) repository so I can imagine much can be done to improve the characterization of ENSO via SLH readings.


[1] F. Zou, R. Tenzer, H. S. Fok, G. Meng and Q. Zhao, “The Sea-Level Changes in Hong Kong From Tide-Gauge Records and Remote Sensing Observations Over the Last Seven Decades,” in IEEE Journal of Selected Topics in Applied Earth Observations and Remote Sensing, vol. 14, pp. 6777-6791, 2021, doi: 10.1109/JSTARS.2021.3087263.