In recent years, the Southern Ocean has experienced unprecedented surface warming and sea ice loss—a stark reversal of the sea ice expansion and surface cooling that prevailed over the preceding decades. Here, we examine the mechanisms that led to the abrupt circumpolar surface warming events that occurred in late 2016 and 2019 and assess the role of internal climate variability. A mixed layer heat budget analysis reveals that these recent circumpolar surface warming events were triggered by a weakening of the circumpolar westerlies, which decreased northward Ekman transport and accelerated the seasonal shoaling of the mixed layer. We emphasize the underappreciated effect of the latter mechanism, which played a dominant role and amplified the warming effect of air–sea heat fluxes during months of peak solar insolation. An examination of the CESM1 large ensemble demonstrates that these recent circumpolar warming events are consistent with the internal variability associated with the Southern Annular Mode (SAM), whereby negative SAM in austral spring favors shallower mixed layers and anomalously high summertime SST. A key insight from this analysis is that the seasonal phasing of springtime mixed layer depth shoaling is an important contributor to summertime SST variability in the Southern Ocean. Thus, future Southern Ocean summertime SST extremes will depend on the coevolution of mixed layer depth and surface wind variability.
This study examines how reductions in the strength of the circumpolar westerlies can produce abrupt and extreme surface warming across the Southern Ocean. A key insight is that the mixed layer temperature is most sensitive to surface wind perturbations in late austral spring, when the regional mixed layer depth and solar insolation approach their respective seasonal minimum and maximum. This heightened surface temperature response to surface wind variability was realized during the austral spring of 2016 and 2019, when a dramatic weakening of the circumpolar westerlies triggered unprecedented warming across the Southern Ocean. In both cases, the anomalously weak circumpolar winds reduced the northward Ekman transport of cool subpolar waters and caused the mixed layer to shoal more rapidly in the spring, with the latter mechanism being more dominant. Using results from an ensemble of coupled climate simulations, we demonstrate that the 2016 and 2019 Southern Ocean warming events are consistent with the internal variability associated with the Southern Annular Mode (SAM). These results suggest that future Southern Ocean surface warming extremes will depend on both the evolution of regional mixed layer depths and interannual wind variability.