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Ocean current

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This article is about ocean currents. For other uses, see Current (disambiguation).

The ocean currents.

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Distinctive white lines trace the flow of surface currents around the world.

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Animation of circulation around ice shelves of Antarctica.
An ocean current is a continuous, directed movement of seawater generated by the forces acting
upon this mean flow, such as breaking waves, wind, Coriolis effect, cabbeling, temperature and
salinity differences, with tides caused by the gravitational pull of the Moon and the Sun. Depth
contours, shoreline configurations and interaction with other currents influence a current's

direction and strength. A deep current is any ocean current at a depth of greater than 100m.[1] A
part of oceanography is the science studying ocean currents.
Ocean currents can flow for great distances, and together they create the great flow of the global
conveyor belt which plays a dominant part in determining the climate of many of the Earths
regions. Perhaps the most striking example is the Gulf Stream, which makes northwest Europe
much more temperate than any other region at the same latitude. Another example is Lima, Peru
where the climate is cooler (sub-tropical) than the tropical latitudes in which the area is located,
due to the effect of the Humboldt Current.


Major ocean surface currents, (Source: NOAA)

A recording current meter

Surface ocean currents are generally wind driven and develop their typical clockwise spirals in
the northern hemisphere and counter clockwise rotation in the southern hemisphere because of
the imposed wind stresses. In wind driven current, the Ekman spiral effect results in the currents
flowing at an angle to the driving winds. The areas of surface ocean currents move somewhat
with the seasons; this is most notable in equatorial currents.

Ocean basins generally have a non-symmetric surface current, in that the eastern equatorwardflowing branch is broad and diffuse whereas the western poleward flowing branch is very
narrow. These western boundary currents (of which the Gulf Stream is an example) are a
consequence of basic fluid dynamics.
Deep ocean currents are driven by density and temperature gradients. Thermohaline circulation,
also known as the ocean's conveyor belt which refers to the deep ocean density driven ocean
basin currents. These currents, that flow under the surface of the ocean and are thus hidden from
immediate detection, are called submarine rivers. These are currently being researched using a
fleet of underwater robots called Argo. Upwelling and downwelling areas in the oceans are areas
where significant vertical movement of ocean water is observed.
The South Equatorial Currents of the Atlantic and Pacific straddle the equator. Though the
Coriolis effect is weak near the equator (and absent at the equator), water moving in the currents
on either side of the equator is deflected slightly poleward and replaced by deeper water. Thus,
equatorial upwelling occurs in these westward flowing equatorial surface currents. Upwelling is
an important process because this water from within and below the pycnocline is often rich in the
nutrients needed by marine organisms for growth. By contrast, generally poor conditions for
growth prevail in most of the open tropical ocean, because strong layering isolates deep, nutrient
rich water from the sunlit ocean surface.
Surface currents make up about 8% of all the water in the ocean. Surface currents are generally
restricted to the upper 400 m (1,300 ft) of the ocean. The movement of deep water in the ocean
basins is by density driven forces and gravity. The density difference is a function of different
temperatures and salinity. Deep waters sink into the deep ocean basins at high latitudes where the
temperatures are cold enough to cause the density to increase.
Ocean currents are measured in sverdrup (sv), where 1 sv is equivalent to a volume flow rate of
1,000,000 m3 (35,000,000 cu ft) per second.

Surface currents[edit]
About 10% of the water in the world ocean is involved in surface currents, which are water
flowing horizontally in the uppermost 400 meters (1,300 feet) of the ocean surface, driven
mainly by wind friction. Winds drive currents that are at or near the ocean's surface. These
currents are generally measured in meters per second or in knots (1 knot = 1.85 kilometers per
hour or 1.15 miles per hour).[2] surface currents move water above the pycnocline, the zone of
rapid density change with depth. The primary force responsible for surface currents is wind.
Most of Earth's surface wind energy is concentrated in each hemisphere's trade winds (easterlies)
and westerlies. Waves on the sea surface transfer some of the energy from the moving air to the
water by friction. This tug of wind on the ocean surface begins a mass flow of water. The water
flowing beneath the wind forms a surface current. The moving water "piles up" in the direction
the wind is blowing. Water pressure is higher on the "piled up" side, and the force of gravity
pulls the water down the slope - against the pressure gradient- in the direction from which it
came. But the Coriolis effect intervenes. Northern Hemisphere surface currents flow to the right
of the wind direction, because of the Coriolis effect. Southern Hemisphere currents flow to the

left. Continents and basin topography often block continuous flow and help deflect the moving
water into a circular pattern. This flow around the periphery of an ocean basin is called a gyre.

Seawater flows in six great surface circuits[edit]

Further information: Ocean gyre
Gyres in balance between the pressure gradient and the Coriolis effect are called geostrophic
gyres, and their currents are called geostrophic currents. The geostrophic gyres are largely
independent of one another in each hemisphere, because of the patterns of driving winds and the
present positions of continents. There are six great current circuits in the world ocean: two in the
Northern Hemisphere and four in the Southern Hemisphere. Five are geostrophic gyres: the
North Atlantic gyre, the South Atlantic gyre, the North Pacific gyre, the South Pacific gyre, and
the Indian Ocean gyre. Though it is a closed circuit, the sixth and largest current, known as the
West Wind Drift (or Antarctic Circumpolar Current), is technically not a gyre since it does not
flow around the periphery of an ocean basin. The West Wind Drift flows endlessly eastward (i.e.,
never deflected by a continent) around Antarctica, driven by powerful, nearly ceaseless westerly
winds. While it might be assumed that the two gyres in the North and South Pacific (and the two
gyres in the North and South Atlantic) converge exactly at the geographical equator, instead the
junction of equatorial currents (referred to as the meteorological equator) lies a few degrees north
of the geographical equator. The meteorological equator and the Intertropical Convergence Zone
(the band at which the trade winds converge) are displaced 5 to 8 northward primarily because
of the heat accumulated in the Northern Hemisphere's greater tropical land surface area. Ocean
circulation like atmospheric circulation, is balanced around the meteorological equator.

Classification for geostrophic currents[edit]

Boundary currents have different characteristics. Because of the different factors that drive and
shape them, the currents that form geostrophic gyres have different characteristics. Geostrophic
currents may be classified by their position within the gyre as western boundary currents, eastern
boundary currents, or transverse currents.

Type of

General features


(millions of
cubic meters
per second)


Warm water;
narrow (< 100 km);
deep (substantial
transport to depths
of 2 km)


Cold water; broad Slow (tens of Small

(~ 1,000 km);
(typically 10
shallow (< 500 m) per day)
15 sv)

Large (usually
(hundreds of
50 sv or
per day)

Special features
Sharp boundary with coastal
circulation system; little or no
coastal upwelling; waters tend to
be depleted in nutrients,
unproductive; waters derived
from trade-wind belts
Diffuse boundaries separating
from coastal currents; coastal
upwelling common; waters

derived from mid-latitudes

Western boundary currents
The western boundary currents are the fastest, deepest, and narrowest of all geostrophic currents,
and they transport an extraordinary volume of water. They are found at the western boundaries of
ocean basins (that is, off the east coast of continents). These currents move warm water poleward
in each of the gyres. There are five large western boundary currents: the Gulf Stream (in the
North Atlantic), the Japan or Kuroshio Current (in the North Pacific), the Brazil Current (in the
South Atlantic), the Agulhas Current (in the Indian Ocean), and the East Australian Current (in
the South Pacific). The Gulf Stream is the largest of the western boundary currents. The western
boundary of the Gulf Stream is usually distinct, marked by abrupt changes in water temperature,
speed, and direction. They can move for surprisingly long distances within well-defined
boundaries, almost as if it were a river. However, long, straight edges are an exception, not a
necessary property of western boundary currents. The western edge of these currents is often
clearly visible. That is to say, the water within the current is usually warm, clear, and blue often
depleted of nutrients and incapable of supporting a variety of ocean life. By contrast, water over
the continental slope adjacent to the current, is often cold, green, and teeming with life. Western
boundary currents meander as they flow poleward. The looping meanders sometimes connect to
form turbulent rings, or eddies, that trap cold or warm water in their centers and then separate
from the main flow. For example, cold-core eddies form in the Gulf Stream, meandering
eastward upon leaving the coast of North America off Cape Hatteras. Warm-core eddies can
form north of the Gulf Stream when the warm current loops into the cold water lying to the
north. When the loops are cut off, they become freestanding spinning masses of water. Warmcore eddies rotate clockwise, whereas cold-core eddies rotate counterclockwise. The slowly
rotating eddies move away from the current and are distributed across the North Atlantic. Some
may be 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) in diameter and retain their identity for more than three
years. In mid-latitudes, as much as one-fourth of the surface of the North Atlantic may consist of
old, slow-moving, cold-core eddy remnants. Nutrients may be brought toward the surface by
turbulence in eddies, which can stimulate the growth of tiny marine plantlike organisms. Recent
research suggests that eddies may also influence the seafloor by slowly moving abyssal storms,
which can be inferred from ripple marks that have been observed in deep sediments.
Eastern boundary currents
Eastern boundary currents have properties that are nearly opposite of their western boundary
counterparts. Eastern boundary currents carry cold water towards the equator; they are shallow
and broad, sometimes more than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) across; their boundaries are not
well defined; and eddies tend not to form. Their total flow is less than that of their western
counterparts. The current is so shallow and broad that sailors may not even notice it. There are
five eastern boundary currents, each of which are at the eastern edge of ocean basins (that is, off
the west coast of continents): the Canary Current (in the North Atlantic), the Benguela Current
(in the South Atlantic), the California Current (in the North Pacific), the West Australian Current
(in the Indian Ocean), and the Peru or Humboldt Current (in the South Pacific).
Transverse currents

Transverse currents are currents that flow from east to west and west to east, linking the eastern
and western boundary currents. They are derived from the trade winds at the fringes of the
tropics and from the mid-latitude westerlies. The trade wind-driven North Equatorial Current and
South Equatorial Current in the Atlantic and Pacific each transport ~30 sv westward, and are
moderately shallow and broad. Since the Pacific has a greater expanse of water at the equator
and stronger trade winds than the Atlantic, the Pacific develops more powerful westward flowing
equatorial currents, which causes the height differential between the western and eastern Pacific
to be as much as 1 meter (3.3 feet). Also, as a consequence of transverse currents, Atlantic water
across the isthmus of Panama is usually 20 centimeters (8 inches) higher, on average, than water
across the isthmus of Panama in the Pacific.

Countercurrents and undercurrents[edit]

Equatorial currents are typically accompanied by countercurrents, which flow on the surface in a
direction opposite to that of the main current. At the meteorological equator, there is a
continuous rising of air and a lack of presence of persistent trade winds across the boundary to
drive water to the west. As a consequence, there is usually a backward (eastward) flow of water
(referred to as a countercurrent) exactly at the meteorological equator, or a bit north or south of
the meteorological equator. Countercurrents can sometimes be undercurrents, which are
countercurrents that exist beneath the water surface. Undercurrents have been found under most
major currents. The Pacific Equatorial Undercurrent, also known as the Cromwell Current, flows
eastward beneath the North Equatorial Current with an average velocity of 5 kilometers (3 miles)
per hour at a depth of 100200 meters (330660 feet). It is about 300 kilometers (190 miles)
wide and carries a volume equivalent to about half the Gulf Stream. It has been traced for more
than 14,000 kilometers (8,700 miles), from New Guinea to Ecuador. The first undercurrent was
discovered in 1951 in the central Pacific by Townsend Cromwell, a researcher employed by the
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Wind-induced vertical circulation[edit]

The wind-driven horizontal movement of water can sometimes induce the vertical movement of
water from the deep, cold, nutrient-laden water toward the surface (a process known as
upwelling). Equatorial upwelling occurs in these westward-flowing equatorial surface currents.
Upwelling is an important process because water from within and below the pycnocline is often
rich in the nutrients needed by marine organisms for growth. By contrast, generally poor
conditions for growth prevail in most of the open tropical ocean, because strong layering isolates
deep, nutrient rich water from the sunlit ocean surface. The South Equatorial Currents of the
Atlantic and Pacific straddle the geographic equator. Though the Coriolis effect is weak near the
equator (and absent at the equator), water moving in the currents on either side of the equator is
deflected slightly poleward. Water north of the equator veers to the right (northward), and water
to the south veers to the left (southward). Surface water therefore diverges, allowing deep water
to replace surface water. Most of the upwelled water comes from the area above the equatorial
undercurrent, at depths of 100 meters or less.

Langmuir circulation[edit]

Winds that blow steadily across the ocean, and the small waves that such winds generate, can
induce long sets of counter-rotating vortices (or cells) in the surface water, referred to as
Langmuir circulation. These slowly twisting vortices align in the direction of the wind. It usually
takes about an hour for a particle in a vortex to complete one revolution. Streaks of foam (or
seaweed or debris), called windrows, collect in areas where adjacent vortices converge, while
regions of divergence remain relatively clear. Langmuir circulation rarely disturbs the ocean
below a depth of about 20 meters (66 feet). Langmuir circulation occurs within the surface layer,
which is above the pycnocline, and thus does not cause upwelling.

Thermohaline circulation[edit]
Further information: Deep ocean water and Thermohaline circulation

Coupling data collected by NASA/JPL by several different satellite-borne sensors, researchers

have been able to "break through" the ocean's surface to detect "Meddies" -- super-salty warmwater eddies that originate in the Mediterranean Sea and then sink more than a half-mile
underwater in the Atlantic Ocean. The Meddies are shown in red in this scientific figure.
Horizontal and vertical currents also exist below the pycnocline in the ocean's deeper waters. The
movement of water due to differences in density as a function of water temperature and salinity
is called thermohaline circulation. The whole ocean is involved in slow thermohaline circulation.
Ripple marks in sediments, scour lines, and the erosion of rocky outcrops on deep-ocean floors
are evidence that relatively strong, localized bottom currents exist. Some of these currents may
move as rapidly as 60 centimeters (24 inches) per second.
These currents are strongly influenced by bottom topography, since dense, bottom water must
forcefully flow around seafloor projections. Thus, they are sometimes called contour currents.
Bottom currents generally move equator-ward at or near the western boundaries of ocean basins
(below the western boundary surface currents). The deep-water masses are not capable of
moving water at speeds comparable to that of wind-driven surface currents. Water in some of
these currents may move only 1 to 2 meters per day. Even at that slow speed, the Coriolis effect
modifies their pattern of flow.

Downwelling of deep water in polar regions[edit]

Antarctic Bottom Water is the most distinctive of the deep-water masses. It is characterized by a
salinity of 34.65, a temperature of -0.5C (30F), and a density of 1.0279 grams per cubic

centimeter. This water is noted for its extreme density (the densest in the world ocean), for the
great amount of it produced near Antarctic coasts, and for its ability to migrate north along the
seafloor. Most Antarctic Bottom Water forms near the Antarctic coast south of South America
during winter. Salt is concentrated in pockets between crystals of pure water and then squeezed
out of the freezing mass to form a frigid brine. Between 20 million and 50 million cubic meters
of this brine form every second. The water's great density causes it to sink toward the continental
shelf, where it mixes with nearly equal parts of water from the southern Antarctic Circumpolar
Current. The mixture settles along the edge of Antarctica's continental shelf, descends along the
slope, and spreads along the deep-sea bed, creeping north in slow sheets. Antarctic Bottom
Water flows many times as slowly as the water in surface currents: in the Pacific it may take a
thousand years to reach the equator. Antarctic Bottom Water also flows into the Atlantic Ocean
basin, where it flows north at a faster rate than in the Pacific. Antarctic Bottom Water has been
identified as high as 40 N on the Atlantic floor.
A small amount of dense bottom water also forms in the northern polar ocean. Although, the
topography of the Arctic Ocean basin prevents most of the bottom water from escaping, with the
exception of deep channels formed in the submarine ridges between Scotland, Iceland, and
Greenland. These channels allow the cold, dense water formed in the Arctic to flow into the
North Atlantic to form North Atlantic Deep Water. North Atlantic Deep Water forms when the
relatively warm and salty North Atlantic Ocean cools as cold winds from northern Canada sweep
over it. Exposed to the chilled air, water at the latitude of Iceland releases heat, cools from 10C
to 2C, and sinks. Gulf Stream water that sinks in the north is replaced by warm water flowing
clockwise along the U.S. east coast in the North Atlantic gyre.


A 1943 map of the world's ocean currents.

Knowledge of surface ocean currents is essential in reducing costs of shipping, since traveling
with them reduces fuel costs. In the sail-ship era knowledge was even more essential. A good
example of this is the Agulhas Current, which long prevented Portuguese sailors from reaching
India. Even today, the round-the-world sailing competitors employ surface currents to their
benefit. Ocean currents are also very important in the dispersal of many life forms. An example
is the life-cycle of the European Eel.
Ocean currents are important in the study of marine debris, and vice versa. These currents also
affect temperatures throughout the world. For example, the current that brings warm water up the
north Atlantic to northwest Europe stops ice from forming by the shores, which would block

ships from entering and exiting ports, the currents have a decisive role in influencing the climate
of the regions they flow through. The cold currents that flow from the polar and sub-polar
regions, bring in a lot of plankton. Since this is the food of the fish you can find a lot of fish
where these currents

Ocean Currents
Ocean Currents Drive The World's Climate

Ocean currents drive the water of the world ocean.

Ocean currents are the vertical or horizontal movement of both surface and deep water throughout
the worlds oceans. Currents normally move in a specific direction and aid significantly in the
circulation of the Earths moisture, the resultant weather, and water pollution.
Oceanic currents are found all over the globe and vary in size, importance, and strength. Some of the
more prominent currents include the California and Humboldt Currents in the Pacific, the Gulf Stream
and Labrador Current in the Atlantic, and the Indian Monsoon Current in the Indian Ocean. These are
just a sampling of the seventeen major surface currents found in the worlds oceans.

The Types and Causes of Ocean Currents

In addition to their varying size and strength, ocean currents differ in type. They can be either surface
or deep water.
Surface currents are those found in the upper 400 meters (1,300 feet) of the ocean and make up
about 10% of all the water in the ocean. Surface currents are mostly caused by the wind because it
creates friction as it moves over the water. This friction then forces the water to move in a spiral
pattern, creating gyres. In the northern hemisphere, gyres move clockwise and in the southern they
spin counterclockwise. The speed of surface currents is greatest closer to the oceans surface and
decreases at about 100 meters (328 ft) below the surface.
Because surface currents travel over long distances, the Coriolis force also plays a role in their
movement and deflects them, further aiding in the creation of their circular pattern. Finally, gravity
plays a role in the movement of surface currents because the top of the ocean is uneven. Mounds in
the water form in areas where the water meets land, where water is warmer, or where two currents
converge. Gravity then pushes this water down slope on the mounds and creates currents.
Deep water currents, also called thermohaline circulation, are found below 400 meters and make up
about 90% of the ocean. Like surface currents, gravity plays a role in the creation of deep water
currents but these are mainly caused by density differences in the water.

Density differences are a function of temperature and salinity. Warm water holds less salt than cold
water so it is less dense and rises toward the surface while cold, salt laden water sinks. As the warm
water rises though, the cold water is forced to rise through upwelling and fill the void left by the
warm. By contrast, when cold water rises, it too leaves a void and the rising warm water is then
forced, through downwelling, to descend and fill this empty space, creating thermohaline circulation.
Thermohaline circulation is known as the Global Conveyor Belt because its circulation of warm and
cold water acts as a submarine river and moves water throughout the ocean.
Finally, seafloor topography and the shape of the oceans basins impact both surface and deep water
currents as they restrict areas where water can move and "funnel" it into another.

The Importance of Ocean Currents

Because ocean currents circulate water worldwide, they have a significant impact on the movement of
energy and moisture between the oceans and the atmosphere. As a result, they are important to the
worlds weather. The Gulf Stream for example is a warm current that originates in the Gulf of Mexico
and moves north toward Europe. Since it is full of warm water, the sea surface temperatures are
warm, which keeps places like Europe warmer than other areas at similar latitudes.
The Humboldt Current is another example of a current that affects weather. When this cold current is
normally present off the coast of Chile and Peru, it creates extremely productive waters and keeps the
coast cool and northern Chile arid. However, when it becomes disrupted, Chiles climate is altered and
it is believed that El Nio plays a role in its disturbance.
Like the movement of energy and moisture, debris can also get trapped and moved around the world
via currents. This can be man-made which is significant to the formation of trash islands or natural
such as icebergs. The Labrador Current, which flows south out of the Arctic Ocean along the coasts of
Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, is famous for moving icebergs into shipping lanes in the North
Currents plan an important role in navigation as well. In addition to being able to avoid trash and
icebergs, knowledge of currents is essential to the reduction of shipping costs and fuel consumption.
Today, shipping companies and even sailing races often use currents to reduce time spent at sea.
Finally, ocean currents are important to the distribution of the worlds sea life. Many species rely on
currents to move them from one location to another whether it is for breeding or just simple
movement over large areas.

Ocean Currents as Alternative Energy

Today, ocean currents are also gaining significance as a possible form of alternative energy. Because
water is dense, it carries an enormous amount of energy that could possibly be captured and
converted into a usable form through the use of water turbines. Currently this is an experimental
technology being tested by the United States, Japan, China, and some European Union countries.
Whether ocean currents are used as alternative energy, to reduce shipping costs, or in their natural to
state to move species and weather worldwide, they are significant to geographers, meteorologists,
and other scientists because they have a tremendous impact on the globe and earth-atmosphere

Coriolis effect

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For the psychophysical perception effect, see Coriolis effect (perception).

In the inertial frame of reference (upper part of the picture), the black ball moves in a straight
line. However, the observer (red dot) who is standing in the rotating/non-inertial frame of
reference (lower part of the picture) sees the object as following a curved path due to the Coriolis
and centrifugal forces present in this frame.
In physics, the Coriolis effect is a deflection of moving objects when they are viewed in a
rotating reference frame. In a reference frame with clockwise rotation, the deflection is to the left
of the motion of the object; in one with counter-clockwise rotation, the deflection is to the right.
Although recognized previously by others, the mathematical expression for the Coriolis force
appeared in an 1835 paper by French scientist Gaspard-Gustave Coriolis, in connection with the
theory of water wheels. Early in the 20th century, the term Coriolis force began to be used in
connection with meteorology.
Newton's laws of motion describe the motion of an object in a (non-accelerating) inertial frame
of reference. When Newton's laws are transformed to a uniformly rotating frame of reference, the
Coriolis and centrifugal forces appear. Both forces are proportional to the mass of the object. The
Coriolis force is proportional to the rotation rate and the centrifugal force is proportional to its
square. The Coriolis force acts in a direction perpendicular to the rotation axis and to the velocity
of the body in the rotating frame and is proportional to the object's speed in the rotating frame.
The centrifugal force acts outwards in the radial direction and is proportional to the distance of
the body from the axis of the rotating frame. These additional forces are termed inertial forces,
fictitious forces or pseudo forces.[1] They allow the application of Newton's laws to a rotating
system. They are correction factors that do not exist in a non-accelerating or inertial reference
A commonly encountered rotating reference frame is the Earth. The Coriolis effect is caused by
the rotation of the Earth and the inertia of the mass experiencing the effect. Because the Earth
completes only one rotation per day, the Coriolis force is quite small, and its effects generally

become noticeable only for motions occurring over large distances and long periods of time,
such as large-scale movement of air in the atmosphere or water in the ocean. Such motions are
constrained by the surface of the earth, so only the horizontal component of the Coriolis force is
generally important. This force causes moving objects on the surface of the Earth to be deflected
in a clockwise sense (with respect to the direction of travel) in the Northern Hemisphere and in a
counter-clockwise sense in the Southern Hemisphere. Rather than flowing directly from areas of
high pressure to low pressure, as they would in a non-rotating system, winds and currents tend to
flow to the right of this direction north of the equator and to the left of this direction south of it.
This effect is responsible for the rotation of large cyclones (see Coriolis effects in meteorology).