In this study, contributions of both local steric and remote baroclinic effects (i.e., steric variations external to the region of interest) to the inter-annual variability of winter sea level in the North Sea, with respect to the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), for the period of 1953–2010 are investigated. On inter-annual time scales in this period, the NAO is significantly correlated to sea level variations in the North Sea only in the winter months (December–March), while its correlation to sea temperature over much of the North Sea is only significant in January and February. The discrepancy in sea level between observations and barotropic tide and surge models forced by tides and local atmospheric forcing, i.e., local atmospheric pressure effects and winds, in the present study are found to be consistent with previous studies. In the North Sea, local thermosteric effects caused by thermal expansion play a minor role on winter-mean NAO related sea level variability compared with atmospheric forcing. This is particularly true in the southeastern North Sea where water depths are mostly less than 25 m. Our calculations demonstrate that the discrepancy can be mostly explained by remote baroclinic effects, which appear as water mass exchanges on the continental shelf and are therefore only apparent in ocean bottom pressure. In the North Sea, NAO related sea level variations seem to be a hybrid of barotropic and baroclinic processes. Hence, they can only be adequately modelled with three-dimensional baroclinic ocean models that include contributions of baroclinic effects and large-scale atmospheric forcing external to the region of interest.
- North Sea; sea level; North Atlantic Oscillation; steric effect; baroclinic effect