Oceans Currents

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Oceans: Currents

Ocean current, stream made up of horizontal and vertical components of the circulation system of ocean waters that is produced by gravity, wind friction, and water density variation in different parts of the ocean. Ocean currents are similar to winds in the atmosphere in that they transfer significant amounts of heat from Earth’s equatorial areas to the poles and thus play important roles in determining the climates of coastal regions. In addition, ocean currents and atmospheric circulation influence one another.

The general circulation of the oceans defines the average movement of seawater, which, like the atmosphere, follows a specific pattern. Superimposed on this pattern are oscillations of tides and waves, which are not considered part of the general circulation. There also are meanders and eddies that represent temporal variations of the general circulation. The ocean circulation pattern exchanges water of varying characteristics, such as temperature and salinity, within the interconnected network of oceans and is an important part of the heat and freshwater fluxes of the global climate. Horizontal movements are called currents, which range in magnitude from a few centimetres per second to as much as 4 metres (about 13 feet) per second. A characteristic surface speed is about 5 to 50 cm (about 2 to 20 inches) per second. Currents generally diminish in intensity with increasing depth. Vertical movements, often referred to as upwelling and downwelling, exhibit much lower speeds, amounting to only a few metres per month. As seawater is nearly incompressible, vertical movements are associated with regions of convergence and divergence in the horizontal flow patterns.

Distribution Of Ocean Currents

Maps of the general circulation at the sea surface were originally constructed from a vast amount of data obtained from inspecting the residual drift of ships after course direction and speed are accounted for in a process called dead reckoning. This information is collected by satellite-tracked surface drifters at sea at present. The pattern is nearly entirely that of wind-driven circulation.


At the surface, aspects of wind-driven circulation cause the gyres (large anticyclonic current cells that spiral about a central point) to displace their centres westward, forming strong western boundary currents against the eastern coasts of the continents, such as the Gulf Stream–North Atlantic–Norway Current in the Atlantic Ocean and the Kuroshio–North Pacific Current in the Pacific Ocean. In the Southern Hemisphere the counterclockwise circulation of the gyres creates strong eastern boundary currents against the western coasts of continents, such as the Peru (Humboldt) Current off South America, the Benguela Current off western Africa, and the Western Australia Current. The Southern Hemisphere currents are also influenced by the powerful, eastward-flowing, circumpolar Antarctic Current. It is a very deep, cold, and relatively slow current, but it carries a vast mass of water, about twice the volume of the Gulf Stream. The Peru and Benguela currents draw water from this Antarctic current and, hence, are cold. The Northern Hemisphere lacks continuous open water bordering the Arctic and so has no corresponding powerful circumpolar current, but there are small cold currents flowing south through the Bering Strait to form the Oya and Anadyr currents off eastern Russia and the California Current off western North America; others flow south around Greenland to form the cold Labrador and East Greenland currents. The Kuroshio–North Pacific and Gulf Stream–North Atlantic–Norway currents move warmer water into the Arctic Ocean via the Bering, Cape, and West Spitsbergen currents.

In the tropics the great clockwise and counterclockwise gyres flow westward as the Pacific North and South Equatorial currents, Atlantic North and South Equatorial currents, and the Indian South Equatorial Current. Because of the alternating monsoon climate of the northern Indian Ocean, the current in the northern Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea alternates. Between these massive currents are narrow eastward-flowing countercurrents.

Other smaller current systems found in certain enclosed seas or ocean areas are less affected by wind-driven circulation and more influenced by the direction of water inflow. Such currents are found in the Tasmanian Sea, where the southward-flowing East Australian Current generates counterclockwise circulation, in the northwestern Pacific, where the eastward-flowing Kuroshio–North Pacific current causes counterclockwise circulation in the Alaska Current and Aleutian Current (or Subarctic Current), in the Bay of Bengal, and in the Arabian Sea.

Deep-ocean circulation consists mainly of thermohaline circulation. The currents are inferred from the distribution of seawater properties, which trace the spreading of specific water masses. The distribution of density is also used to estimate the deep currents. Direct observations of subsurface currents are made by deploying current meters from bottom-anchored moorings and by setting out neutral buoyant instruments whose drift at depth is tracked acoustically.

Causes Of Ocean Currents

Following are some of the important causes of ocean currents:

Pressure gradients

The hydrostatic pressure, p, at any depth below the sea surface is given by the equation p = gρz, where g is the acceleration of gravity, ρ is the density of seawater, which increases with depth, and z is the depth below the sea surface. This is called the hydrostatic equation, which is a good approximation for the equation of motion for forces acting along the vertical. Horizontal differences in density (due to variations of temperature and salinity) measured along a specific depth cause the hydrostatic pressure to vary along a horizontal plane or geopotential surface, a surface perpendicular to the direction of the gravity acceleration. Horizontal gradients of pressure, though much smaller than vertical changes in pressure, give rise to ocean currents.

Coriolis effect

Earth’s rotation about its axis causes moving particles to behave in a way that can only be understood by adding a rotational dependent force. To an observer in space, a moving body would continue to move in a straight line unless the motion were acted upon by some other force. To an Earth-bound observer, however, this motion cannot be along a straight line because the reference frame is the rotating Earth. This is similar to the effect that would be experienced by an observer standing on a large turntable if an object moved over the turntable in a straight line relative to the “outside” world. An apparent deflection of the path of the moving object would be seen. If the turntable rotated counterclockwise, the apparent deflection would be to the right of the direction of the moving object, relative to the observer fixed on the turntable.

Frictional forces

Movement of water through the oceans is slowed by friction, with surrounding fluid moving at a different velocity. A faster-moving fluid layer tends to drag along a slower-moving layer, and a slower-moving layer will tend to reduce the speed of a faster-moving layer. This momentum transfer between the layers is referred to as frictional forces. The momentum transfer is a product of turbulence that moves kinetic energy to smaller scales until at the tens-of-microns scale (1 micron = 1/1,000 mm) it is dissipated as heat. The wind blowing over the sea surface transfers momentum to the water. This frictional force at the sea surface (i.e., the wind stress) produces the wind-driven circulation. Currents moving along the ocean floor and the sides of the ocean also are subject to the influence of boundary-layer friction. The motionless ocean floor removes momentum from the circulation of the ocean waters.


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