Occupying about 14% of the world's surface, the Southern Ocean plays a fundamental role in ocean and atmosphere circulation, carbon cycling and Antarctic ice-sheet dynamics. Unfortunately, high interannual variability and a dearth of instrumental observations before the 1950s limits our understanding of how marine-atmosphere-ice domains interact on multi-decadal timescales and the impact of anthropogenic forcing. Here we integrate climate-sensitive tree growth with ocean and atmospheric observations on southwest Pacific subantarctic islands that lie at the boundary of polar and subtropical climates (52-54°S). Our annually resolved temperature reconstruction captures regional change since the 1870s and demonstrates a significant increase in variability from the 1940s, a phenomenon predating the observational record. Climate reanalysis and modelling show a parallel change in tropical Pacific sea surface temperatures that generate an atmospheric Rossby wave train which propagates across a large part of the Southern Hemisphere during the austral spring and summer. Our results suggest that modern observed high interannual variability was established across the mid-twentieth century, and that the influence of contemporary equatorial Pacific temperatures may now be a permanent feature across the mid- to high latitudes.