The Southern Annular Mode (SAM)

The Southern Annular Mode (SAM), also known as the Antarctic Oscillation (AAO), describes the north–south movement of the westerly wind belt that circles Antarctica, dominating the middle to higher latitudes of the southern hemisphere.

The changing position of the westerly wind belt influences the strength and position of cold fronts and mid-latitude storm systems, and is an important driver of rainfall variability in southern Australia.

In a positive SAM event, the belt of strong westerly winds contracts towards Antarctica. This results in weaker than normal westerly winds and higher pressures over southern Australia, restricting the penetration of cold fronts inland.

Conversely, a negative SAM event reflects an expansion of the belt of strong westerly winds towards the equator. This shift in the westerly winds results in more (or stronger) storms and low pressure systems over southern Australia. During autumn and winter, a positive SAM value can mean cold fronts and storms are farther south, and hence southern Australia generally misses out on rainfall. However, in spring and summer, a strong positive SAM can mean that southern Australia is influenced by the northern half of high pressure systems, and hence there are more easterly winds bringing moist air from the Tasman Sea. This increased moisture can turn to rain as the winds hit the coast and the Great Dividing Range.

In recent years, a high positive SAM has dominated during autumn–winter, and has been a significant contributor to the 'big dry' observed in southern Australia from 1997 to 2010.

Southern Annular Mode

Positive phase:

  • band of westerly winds contracts toward Antarctica
  • higher pressures over southern Australia
  • can relate to stable, dry conditions.

Negative phase:

  • band of westerly winds expands towards the equator
  • more (or stronger) low pressure systems over southern Australia
  • can mean increased storms and rain.