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Once the wind sets surface waters in motion as a current, the

Coriolis effect, Ekman transport, and the configuration of the

ocean basin modify the speed and direction of the current. In
this section, we consider the forces involved in the coupling of
wind and ocean surface waters.

Wind-driven Currents and Ekman Transport

The wind blows across the ocean and moves its waters
as a result of its frictional drag on the surface. Ripples
or waves cause the surface roughness necessary for
the wind to couple with surface waters. A wind
blowing steadily over deep water for 12 hrs at an
average speed of about 100 cm per sec (2.2 mi per
hr) would produce a 2 cm per sec current (about 2% Viewed from above in the Northern Hemisphere, the surface layer of
water moves at 45 degrees to the right of the wind. The net transport
of the wind speed).
of water through the entire wind-driven column (Ekman transport) is
90 degrees to the right of the wind.
If Earth did not rotate, frictional coupling between moving air
and the ocean surface would push a thin layer of water in the The Ekman spiral indicates that each moving layer is
same direction as the wind. This surface layer in turn would drag deflected to the right of the overlying layer's movement;
the layer beneath it, putting it into motion. This interaction hence, the direction of water movement changes with
would propagate downward through successive ocean layers, like increasing depth. In an ideal case, a steady wind blowing
cards in a deck, each moving forward at a slower speed than the across an ocean of unlimited depth and extent causes
layer above. However, because Earth rotates, the shallow layer surface waters to move at an angle of 45 degrees to the
of surface water set in motion by the wind is deflected to the right of the wind in the Northern Hemisphere (45 degrees
right of the wind direction in the Northern Hemisphere and to the to the left in the Southern Hemisphere). Each successive
left of the wind direction in the Southern Hemisphere. This layer moves more toward the right and at a slower speed.
deflection is known as the Coriolis effect. Except at the At a depth of about 100 to 150 m (330 to 500 ft), the
equator, where the Coriolis effect is zero, each layer of water put Ekman spiral has gone through less than half a turn. Yet
into motion by the layer above shifts direction because of Earth's water moves so slowly (about 4% of the surface current) in
rotation. a direction opposite that of the wind that this depth is
considered to be the lower limit of the wind's influence on
ocean movement.

In the Northern Hemisphere, the Ekman spiral predicts net

water movement through a depth of about 100 to 150 m
(330 to 500 ft) at 90 degrees to the wind direction (Figure
B). That is, if one adds up all the vectors in (Figure A), the
resulting flow is at 90 degrees to the right of the wind
direction. In the Southern Hemisphere, the net water
movement is 90 degrees to the left of the wind direction.
This net transport of water due to coupling between wind
and surface waters is known as Ekman transport.

Because the real ocean does not match the idealized

conditions of the Ekman spiral, wind-induced water
movements often differ appreciably from theoretical
predictions. In shallow water, for example, the water depth
is insufficient for the full spiral to develop so that the angle
between the horizontal wind direction and surface-water
movements can be as little as 15 degrees. As waters
deepen, the angle increases and approaches 45 degrees.
The Ekman spiral describes how the horizontal wind sets surface waters in The stable pycnocline inhibits the transfer of kinetic energy
motion. As represented by horizontal vectors, the speed and direction of to deeper waters, helping to contain wind-driven currents
water motion change with increasing depth.
to the mixed layer; that is, the pycnocline acts as a
permeable boundary for Ekman transport and surface
Using vectors to plot the direction and speed of water layers at
successive depths, we can show a simplified three-dimensional
current pattern caused by a steady horizontal wind (Figure A).
(A vector is an arrow representing a physical quantity so that Ekman transport piles up surface water in some areas of
length is directly proportional to magnitude and orientation the ocean and removes water from other areas, producing
represents direction.) This model is known as the Ekman variations in the height of the sea surface, causing it to
spiral, named for the Swedish physicist V Walfrid Ekman (1874- slope gradually. One consequence of a sloping ocean
1954) who first described it mathematically in 1905. Ekman surface is the generation of horizontal
based his model on observations made by the Norwegian differences (gradients) in water pressure. These pressure
explorer Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930). Nansen was interested in gradients, in turn, give rise to geostrophic flow.
ocean currents in polar seas. In 1893, he allowed his 39-m (128-
ft) wooden ship, the Fram, to freeze into Arctic pack ice about Adapted from DataStreme Ocean and
1100 km (680 mi) south of the North Pole. His goal was to drift used with permission of the
American Meteorological Society.
with the ice and cross the North Pole thereby determining how
ocean currents affect the movement of pack ice.
The Fram remained locked in pack ice for 35 months but only
came within 394 km (244 mi) of the North Pole. As
the Fram slowly drifted with the ice, Nansen noticed that the
direction of ice and ship movement was consistently 20 to 40
degrees to the right of the prevailing wind direction.