Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans

A model of the seasonal cycle in the tropical Atlantic Ocean


  • S. G. H. Philander,

  • R. C. Pacanowski


In the western tropical Atlantic, seasonal variations in the surface winds and in the ocean are dominated by an annual harmonic. A simulation with a general circulation model indicates that the response in the western side of the basin is an equilibrium one practically in phase with the local winds. It includes the following: large vertical excursions of the thermocline that have a 180° change in phase across 8°N approximately; a change in the direction of the North Brazilian Coastal Current, which flows continuously along the coast between December and May but which veers offshore near 5°N to feed the North Equatorial Countercurrent during the other months; and a seasonal reversal of the countercurrent. To the east of 30°W, seasonal changes in the model have a prominent semiannual harmonic in phase with the local winds but only partially attributable to forcing at that frequency. The transients excited by the abrupt intensification of the southeast tradewinds in May happen to have a phase essentially the same as that of the semiannual forcing. These transients decay by the end of the calendar year, so that the seasonal cycle that starts with the intensification of the winds in May can be treated as an initial value problem as far as the upper ocean, above the thermocline, is concerned. The winds along the equator determine the response of the surface equatorial layer in the Gulf of Guinea but play a minor role in the seasonal upwelling along the coast near 5°N. That upwelling is strongly influenced by changes in both components of the wind, and in the curl of the wind, over the Gulf of Guinea.