River plumes play an important role in the cross-margin transport of phytoplankton and nutrients, which have profound impacts on coastal ecosystems. Using recently available Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) sea surface salinity (SSS) data and high-resolution ocean color products, this study investigated summertime high-frequency variations in the Pearl River plume of China and its biological response. The SMAP SSS captures the intraseasonal oscillations in the offshore transport of the Pearl River plume well, which has distinct 30–60 day variations from mid-May to late September. The offshore transport of freshwater varies concurrently with southwesterly wind anomalies and is roughly in phase with the Madden–Julian Oscillation (MJO) index in phases 1–5, thus implying that the MJO exerts a significant influence. During MJO phases 1–2, the southwest wind anomalies in the northeastern South China Sea (SCS) enhanced cross-shore Ekman transport, while the northeast wind anomalies during MJO phases 3–5 favored the subsequent southwestward transport of the plume. The high chlorophyll-a
concentration coincided well with the low-salinity water variations, emphasizing the important role of the offshore transport of the Pearl River plume in sustaining biological production over the oligotrophic northern SCS. The strong offshore transport of the plume in June 2015 clearly revealed that the proximity of a cyclonic eddy plays a role in the plume’s dispersal pathway. In addition, heavy rainfall related to the landfall of tropical cyclones in the Pearl River Estuary region contributed to the episodic offshore transport of the plume.
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