The primary cause of anomalous ocean conditions is the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. Westward winds normally maintain slightly higher water levels in the western Pacific relative to the eastern Pacific. Every three to five years, in a non-periodic pattern, the winds weaken and water levels in the western Pacific drop below normal. The southern equatorial current is weakened and water temperatures in the eastern Pacific rise. This condition is known as El Niño. The opposite condition, known as La Niña, occurs when westward equatorial winds are unusually strong and water levels in the western Pacific become anomalously high. The south equatorial current strengthens, accompanied by below normal water temperatures in the eastern Pacific.Boiled down, in terms of the effect on sea level, is that levels in the western and south-western Pacific tend to drop, often significantly, during El Niño years, while those in the east tend to rise.
The island of Majuro, in the Marshall Islands reflects this trend particularly well. The opposite La Niña effect, though present, is not so well illustrated. Using data from an earlier gauge maintained by the University of Hawaii, and the later SEAFRAME gauge installed in 1993 by the National Tidal Centre based in Adelaide, Australia, I've been able to reconstruct a history of sea level at Majuro Atoll from 1978 to 2011.
South Pacific Sea Level 2011".
Here's a table of El Niño years. Those from 1969 to 2010 are clearly represented on the Majuro chart. The 1982-3 and 1997-8 El Niños were particularly strong events, and I've highlighted them in red
On the other (eastern) side of the Pacific, continuous long-term records are difficult to find, but that for Monterey, California illustrates the opposite effects quite well, although earlier El Niño years aren't quite so clearly defined.
The linear trend shows a value of 0.28 mm/month, which translates to 3.36 mm/year. However, the effect of the El Niños is to pull the trend line down progressively from right to left; it's always below the 13-month running mean (in red), more so on the left. A simple way to eliminate the negative effect of the El Niño "spikes" on the trend is to remove them from the data. However, this is not as easy as it sounds; there's a clear (approximately) annual cycle, illustrated by the sharp upward spikes. These "king tides" usually occur in late February or early March, occasionally as late as April, and their timing is due to the "lining up" of the tidal effects of both moon and sun. The all-time peak was in February 2006 (very clear on the graph), and despite dire predictions, hasn't yet been surpassed.
An Australian newspaper dispatched a team to Tuvalu in February 2011 to document what was expected to an all-time record "king tide". However, nature being as quirky as ever, organised things so that they'd already "missed the boat" (a metaphor becomes a bad pun!) as the highest tide had already occurred the previous month; indeed the February peak was lower than both January and March peaks. That and the fact that the January peak was no record, produced a "non-event" and no follow-up report was published.
However, I digress - removing the El Niño "spikes" must be done with care if an opposite upward bias is to be avoided. One way round this is to use annual data so the monthly cycle is not a problem, though it effectively removes more data. I'll be following up with a detailed analysis of late-20th century sea level rise at Tuvalu.
Marshall Islands (Majuro): Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level and South Pacific Sea Level and Climate Monitoring Project
Monterey: Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level
Tuvalu (Funafuti): Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level and South Pacific Sea Level and Climate Monitoring Project