AbstractA long simulation over the period 1901–2010 with an eddy-permitting ocean circulation model is used to study the variability of the upper layer circulation in the North Ionian Gyre (NIG) in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea (EMed). The model is driven by the atmospheric forcing from the twentieth century reanalysis data set ERA-20C, ensuring a consistent performance of the model over the entire simulation period. The main modes of variability known in the EMed, in particular the decadal reversals of the NIG upper layer circulation observed since the late 1980s are well reproduced. We find that the simulated NIG upper layer circulation prior to the observational period is characterized by long-lasting cyclonic phases with weak variability during years 1910–1940 and 1960–1985, while in the in-between period (1940–1960) quasi-decadal NIG circulation reversals occur with similar characteristics to those observed in the recent decades. Our simulation indicates that the NIG upper layer circulation is rather prone to the cyclonic mode with occasional kicks to the anticyclonic mode. The coherent variability of the NIG upper layer circulation mode and of the Adriatic Deep Water (AdDW) outflow implies that atmospheric forcing triggering strong AdDW formation is required to kick the NIG into an anticyclonic circulation 1–2 years later. A sensitivity experiment mimicking a cold winter event over the Adriatic Sea supports this hypothesis. Our simulation shows that it is the multi-decadal variability of the salinity in the Adriatic Sea that leads to periods where low salinity prevents strong AdDW formation events. This explains the absence of quasi-decadal NIG reversals during 1910–1940 and 1960–1985.