• Indian Ocean;
  • heat content;
  • sea level

[1] Reconstructions of the spatial pattern of recent multi-decadal sea level trends in the Indian Ocean (IO) indicate a zonally-extended band in the southern tropics where sea level has substantially fallen between the 1960s and 1990s; the decline is consistent with the observed subsurface cooling associated with a shoaling thermocline in this region. Here the origin and spatio-temporal characteristics of these trends are elucidated by a sequence of ocean model simulations. Whereas interannual variability in the southwestern tropical IO appears mainly governed by IO atmospheric forcing, longer term changes in the south tropical IO involve a strong contribution from the western Pacific via wave transmission of thermocline anomalies through the Indonesian Archipelago, and their subsequent westward propagation by baroclinic Rossby waves. The late 20th-century IO subsurface cooling trend reversed in the 1990s, reflecting the major regime shift in the tropical Pacific easterlies associated with the Pacific Decadal Oscillation.