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9.8: Salinity Patterns

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  • All of the salts and ions that dissolve in seawater contribute to its overall salinity. Salinity of seawater is usually expressed as the grams of salt per kilogram (1000 g) of seawater. On average, about 35 g of salt is present in each 1 kg of seawater, so we say that the average salinity of the ocean salinity is 35 parts per thousand (ppt). Note that 35 ppt is equivalent to 3.5% (parts per hundred). Some sources now use practical salinity units (PSU) to express salinity values, where 1 PSU = 1 ppt. The units are not included, so we can refer simply to a salinity of 35.

    Many different substances are dissolved in the ocean, but six ions comprise about 99.4% of all the dissolved ions in seawater. These six major ions are (Table 5.3.1):

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) The relative proportions of ions in seawater. (By derivative work: Tcncv (talk) Sea_salt-e_hg.svg: Hannes Grobe, Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, Bremerhaven, Germany; SVG version by Stefan Majewsky (Sea_salt-e_hg.svg) [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons)

    Chloride and sodium, the components of table salt (sodium chloride NaCl), make up over 85% of the ions in the ocean, which is why seawater tastes salty (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)). In addition to the major constituents, there are numerous minor constituents; radionucleotides, organic compounds, metals etc. These minor constituents are found in concentrations of ppm (parts per million) or ppb (parts per billion), unlike the major ions that are far more abundant (ppt) (Table 5.3.2). To put this into perspective, 1 ppm = 1 mg/kg, or the equivalent of 1 teaspoon of sugar dissolved in 14,000 cans of soda. 1 ppb = 1 μg/kg, or the equivalent of 1 teaspoon of a substance dissolved in five Olympic-sized swimming pools! These minor constituents represent numerous substances, but together they make up less than 1% of the ions in the seawater. Some of these may be important as minerals and trace elements vital to living organisms, but they don’t have much impact on the overall salinity. But given the vast size of the oceans, even materials found in trace abundance can represent fairly large reservoirs. For example gold is a trace element in seawater, found in concentrations of parts per trillion, yet if you could extract all of the gold in just one km3 of seawater, it would be worth about $20 million!

    Because the six major ions in seawater comprise over 99% of the total salinity, changes in abundance of the minor constituents have little effect on overall salinity. Furthermore, the rule of constant proportions states that even though the absolute salinity of ocean water might differ in different places, the relative proportions of the six major ions within that water are always constant. For example, no matter the total salinity of a seawater sample, 55% of the total salinity will be due to chloride, 30% due to sodium, and so on. Since the proportion of these major ions does not change, we call these conservative ions.

    Given these constant proportions, in order to calculate total salinity you can simply measure the concentration of just one of the major ions and use that value to calculate the rest. Traditionally chloride has been the ion measured because it is the most abundant, and thus the simplest to measure accurately. Multiplying the concentration of chloride by 1.8 gives the total salinity. For example, looking at Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\), 19.25 g/kg (ppt) chloride x 1.8 = 35 ppt. Today, for rapid measurements of salinity, electrical conductivity is often used rather than determining chloride concentrations (see box below).

    Measuring Salinity

    There are a number of methods available for measuring the salinity of water. The most precise measurements utilize direct chemical analysis of the seawater in a lab setting, but there are a number of ways to get immediate salinity measurements in the field. For a quick estimate of salinity, a hand-held refractometer can be used (right).

    Handheld refractometer (Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas / CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

    This instrument measures the degree of bending, or refraction, of light rays as they pass through a fluid. The greater the amount of dissolved salts in the sample, the greater the degree of light refraction. The observer traps a drop of water on the blue screen, and looks through the eyepiece. The dividing line between the blue and white sections of the scale (inset) can be used to read the salinity.

    For more accurate measurements, most oceanographers use an instrument that measures electrical conductivity. An electrical current is passed between two electrodes immersed in water, and the higher the salinity, the more readily the current will be conducted (the ions in seawater conduct electrical currents). Conductivity probes are often bundled into an instrument called a CTD, which stands for Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth, which are the most commonly-measured parameters. Modern CTDs can be outfitted with an array of probes measuring parameters like light, turbidity (water clarity), dissolved gases etc. CTDs can be large instruments (below), but small hand-held salinity probes are also widely available.

    Left: The inner workings of a CTD. An array of different probes are attached. Right: A CTD in a protective cage ready to be deployed at sea. (Left: Hannes Grobe [CC BY 3.0 (]; Right: © Hans Hillewaert (CC BY-SA 4.0) via Wikimedia Commons)

    For large-scale salinity measurements, oceanographers can use satellites, such as the Aquarius satellite, which was able to measure surface salinity differences as small as 0.2 PSU as it mapped the ocean surface every seven days (below).

    (NASA, Public Domain)

    It is important to be aware that while the rule of constant proportions applies to most of the ocean, there may be certain coastal areas where lots of river discharge may alter these proportions slightly. Furthermore, it is important to remember that the rule of constant proportions only applies to the major ions. The proportions of the minor ions may fluctuate, but remember that they make a very minor contribution to overall salinity. Because the concentrations of the minor ions are not constant, these are referred to as non-conservative ions.

    Why are the major ions found in constant proportions? There is constant input of ions from river runoff and other processes, usually in very different proportions from what is found in the ocean. So why don’t the proportions in the oceans change? Most of the ions discharged by rivers have fairly low residence times (see section 5.2) compared to ions in seawater, usually because they are used in biological processes. These low residence times do not allow the ions to accumulate and alter salinity. Also, the mixing time of the world ocean is around 1000 years, which is very short compared to the residence times of the major ions, which may be tens of millions of years long. So during the residence time of a single ion the ocean has mixed numerous times, and the major ions have become evenly distributed throughout the ocean.


    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\) Salinity profiles from two hypothetical sites in the open ocean, one from high latitude and one from low latitude (PW).