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Keywords:

  • South Pacific Convergence Zone (SPCZ);
  • ITCZ variability

The South Pacific Convergence Zone (SPCZ) is the largest and most persistent spur of the Intertropical Convergence Zone. At the southeastern edge of the SPCZ near 170°W and 15°–20°S a surface ocean salinity frontal zone exists that separates fresher Western Pacific Warm Pool water from saltier and cooler waters in the east. This salinity front is known to shift east and west with the phase of the El Niño Southern Oscillation. We have generated subannually resolved and replicated coral oxygen isotopic time series from Fiji (17°S, 179°E) and Rarotonga (21.5°S, 160°W) that have recorded interannual displacements of the salinity front over the last 380 years and also indicate that at lower frequencies the decadal mean position of the salinity front, and eastern extent of the SPCZ, has shifted east-west through 10° to 20° of longitude three times during this interval. The most recent and largest shift began in the mid 1800s as the salinity front progressively moved eastward and salinity decreased at both sites. Our results suggest that sea surface salinity at these sites is now at the lowest levels recorded and is evidence for an unprecedented expansion of the SPCZ since the mid 1800s. The expansion of the SPCZ implies a gradual change in the South Pacific to more La Niña-like long-term mean conditions. This observation is consistent with the ocean thermostat mechanism for the Pacific coupled ocean-atmosphere system, whereby exogenous heating of the atmosphere would result in greater warming in the western Pacific and a greater east-west surface temperature gradient.