The atmospheric and oceanic causes of mixed layer heat variations in the South China Sea (SCS) are examined using data from six long-lived Array for Real-time Geostrophic Oceanography (Argo) floats. The mixed layer heat budget along each float trajectory is evaluated based on direct measurements, satellite and reanalysis datasets. Our results suggest that the mixed layer heat balance in the SCS has distinct spatial and seasonal variations. The amplitude of all terms in the mixed layer heat budget equation is significantly larger in the northern SCS than in the southern SCS, especially in winter. In the northern SCS, the mixed layer heat budget is controlled by the local surface heat flux and horizontal advection terms in winter, and the net heat flux term in summer. In the western and southeastern SCS, the mixed layer heat budget is dominated by the net surface heat flux in both winter and summer. Further analysis shows that in the SCS, surface shortwave radiation and geostrophic heat advection are major contributors to net heat flux and horizontal advection, respectively. Unlike the net heat flux and horizontal advection, the vertical entrainment is a sink term in general. The rate of mixed layer deepening is the most important factor in the entrainment rate, and a barrier layer may decrease the temperature difference between the bottom of the mixed layer and the water beneath. Residual analysis suggests that the residual term in the equation is due to the inexact calculation of heat geostrophic advection, other missing terms, and unresolved physical ocean dynamic processes.
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