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Keywords:

  • sea level;
  • altimeter;
  • skewness;
  • eddies;
  • western boundary currents;
  • model validation

[1] Skewness of sea level variability for the world's oceans is calculated using gridded altimeter data for the period 1993–2001. Many well-known ocean features can be identified in the skewness map, including the Gulf Stream, Kuroshio Extension, Brazil-Malvinas Confluence, and the Agulhas Retroflection. It is shown, through an idealized example and results from a quasi-geostrophic model, that sea level skewness can be used to identify the mean path of unstable ocean jets and also regions dominated by eddies with a preferred sense of rotation. These ideas are confirmed with a more detailed analysis of the skewness fields for the northwest Atlantic and Agulhas Retroflection region. Finally, it is argued that sea level skewness, like variance, is a potentially powerful diagnostic for testing the realism of high-resolution ocean circulation models.