Skip to main content

Surface available gravitational potential energy in the world oceans


Satellite altimetry observations, including the upcoming Surface Water and Ocean Topography mission, provide snapshots of the global sea surface high anomaly field. The common practice in analyzing these surface elevation data is to convert them into surface velocity based on the geostrophic approximation. With increasing horizontal resolution in satellite observations, sea surface elevation data will contain many dynamical signals other than the geostrophic velocity. A new physical quantity, the available surface potential energy, is conceptually introduced in this study defined as the density multiplied by half of the squared deviation from the local mean reference surface elevation. This gravitational potential energy is an intrinsic property of the sea surface height field and it is an important component of ocean circulation energetics, especially near the sea surface. In connection with other energetic terms, this new variable may help us better understand the dynamics of oceanic circulation, in particular the processes in connection with the free surface data collected through satellite altimetry. The preliminary application of this concept to the numerically generated monthly mean Global Ocean Data Assimilation System data and Archiving, Validation, and Interpretation of Satellite Oceanographic altimeter data shows that the available surface potential energy is potentially linked to other dynamic variables, such as the total kinetic energy, eddy kinetic energy and available potential energy.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


Download references


Xiaolong Huang helped in processing the AVISO data. The authors would like to thank NCEP of NOAA ( and AVISO+ ( for providing GODAS reanalysis data and gridded altimeter products.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Zhiyou Jing.

Additional information

Foundation item: The National Natural Science Foundation of China under contract Nos 92058201 and 41776040; the Chinese Academy of Sciences under contract Nos ZDBS-LY-DQC011, XDA15020901 and ISEE2018PY05.

Supplementary information for

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Huang, R., Qiu, B. & Jing, Z. Surface available gravitational potential energy in the world oceans. Acta Oceanol. Sin. 41, 40–56 (2022).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

Key words

  • satellite altimetry
  • surface available potential energy
  • eddy kinetic energy