A three-dimensional numerical model is used to simulate sea level and velocity variations in the South China Sea for 1992-1995. The model is driven by daily wind and daily sea surface temperature fields derived from the NCEP/NCAR 40-year reanalysis project. The four-year model outputs are analyzed using time-domain Empirical Orthogonal Functions (EOF). Spatial and temporal variations of the first two modes from the simulation compare favorably with those derived from satellite altimetry. Mode 1, which is associated with a southern gyre, shows symmetric seasonal reversal. Mode 2, which contributes to a northern gyre, is responsible for the asymmetric seasonal and interannual variations. In winter, the southern and northern cyclonic gyres combine into a strong basin-wide cyclonic gyre. In summer, a cyclonic northern gyre and an anticyclonic southern gyre form a dipole with a jet leaving the coast of Vietnam. Interannual variations are particularly noticeable during El Nino. The winter gyre is generally weakened and confined to the southern basin, and the summer dipole structure does not form. Vertical motions weaken accordingly with the basin-wide circulation. Variations of the wind stress curl in the first two EOF modes coincide with those of the model-derived sea level and horizontal velocities. The mode 1 wind stress curl, significant in the southern basin, coincides with the reversal of the southern gyre. The mode 2 curl, large in the central basin, is responsible for the asymmetry in the winter and summer gyres. Lack of the mode 2 contribution during El Nino events weakens the circulation. The agreement indicates that changes in the wind stress curl contribute to the seasonal and interannual variations in the South China Sea.
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