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Keywords:

  • South China Sea;
  • current separation;
  • upwelling

[1] The high-resolution, unstructured grid Finite-Volume Community Ocean Model (FVCOM) was used to examine the physical mechanisms that cause current separation and upwelling over the southeast shelf of Vietnam in the South China Sea (SCS). Process-oriented experiments suggest that the southwesterly monsoon wind is a key physical mechanism for upwelling in that area but not a prerequisite to cause current separation. With no wind forcing, current separation in summer can occur as a result of the encounter of a southward along-shelf coastal current from the north and northeastward buoyancy-driven and stratified tidal-rectified currents from the southwest. The southward current can be traced upstream to the Hong River in the Gulf of Tonkin. This current is dominated by semigeostrophic dynamics and is mostly confined to the narrow shelf along the northern Vietnamese coast. The northeastward currents are generated by tidal rectification and are intensified by the Mekong River discharge and southwesterly monsoon wind forcing. The dynamics controlling this current are fully nonlinear, with significant contributions from advection and vertical turbulent mixing. Upwelling in the current separation zone can be produced by a spatially uniform constant wind field and can be explained using simple wind-induced Ekman transport theory. This finding differs from previous theory in which the regional dipole wind stress curl is claimed as a key mechanism for current separation and upwelling in this coastal region. Our SCS FVCOM, driven by the wind stress, river discharge, and tides, is capable of reproducing the location and tongue-like offshore distribution of temperature as those seen in satellite-derived sea surface temperature imagery.