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11.2: Salinity Patterns

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  •  Because salinity contributes to water density, and, thus, thermohaline circulation, it is important to discuss variations in salinity across oceans and, also, with depth.

    Variations in Salinity

    Total salinity in the open ocean averages 33-37 ppt, but it can vary significantly in different locations. But since the major ion proportions are constant, the regional salinity differences must be due more to water input and removal rather than the addition or removal of ions. Fresh water input comes through processes like precipitation, runoff from land, and melting ice. Fresh water removal primarily comes from evaporation and freezing (when seawater freezes, the resulting ice is mostly fresh water and the salts are excluded, making the remaining water even saltier). So differences in rates of precipitation, evaporation, river discharge, and ice formation play a significant role in regional salinity variations. For example, the Baltic Sea has a very low surface salinity of around 10 ppt, because it is a mostly enclosed body of water with lots of river input. Conversely, the Red Sea is very salty (around 40 ppt), due to the lack of precipitation and the hot environment which leads to high levels of evaporation.

    One of the saltiest large bodies of water on Earth is the Dead Sea, between Israel and Jordan. Salinity in the Dead Sea is around 330 ppt, which is almost ten times saltier than the ocean. This extremely high salinity is a result of the hot, arid conditions in the Middle East that lead to high rates of evaporation. In addition, in the 1950s the flow from the Jordan River was diverted away from the Dead Sea, so there is no longer significant fresh water input. With no input and high evaporation, the water level in the Dead Sea is receding at a rate of about 1 m per year. The high salinity makes the water very dense, which creates buoyant forces that allow people to easily float at the surface. But the high salinity also means that the water is too salty for most living organisms, so only microbes are able to call it home; hence the name the Dead Sea. But as salty as the Dead Sea may be, it is not the saltiest body of water on Earth. That distinction currently belongs to Gaet’ale Pond in Ethiopia, with a salinity of 433 ppt!

    Latitudinal Variations

    While local conditions are important for determining salinity patterns in any single location, there are some global patterns that bear further investigation. Temperature is highest at the equator, and lowest near the poles, so we would expect higher rates of evaporation, and therefore higher salinity, in equatorial regions (Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)). This is generally the case, but in the figure below salinity right along the equator seems to be a little lower than at slightly higher latitudes. This is because equatorial regions also get a high volume of rain on a regular basis, which dilutes the surface water along the equator. So the higher salinities are found at subtropical, warm latitudes with high evaporation and less precipitation. At the poles there is little evaporation, which, coupled with ice and snow melting, produces a relatively low surface salinity. The image below shows high salinity in the Mediterranean Sea; this is located in a warm region with high evaporation, and the sea is largely isolated from mixing with the rest of the North Atlantic water, leading to high salinity. Lower salinities, such as those around southeast Asia, are the result of precipitation and high volumes of river input.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\) Annual mean global sea surface salinity (Data from World Ocean Atlas 2009. By Plumbago – Own work, [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\) shows the mean global differences between evaporation and precipitation (evaporation – precipitation).  Green colors represent areas where precipitation exceeds evaporation, while brown regions are where evaporation is greater than precipitations. Note the correlation between precipitation, evaporation, and surface salinity as seen in Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\) Annual mean global differences in evaporation and precipitation (J.Fasullo. National Center for Atmospheric Research Staff (Eds). “The Climate Data Guide: ERA-Interim: derived components.” Retrieved from

    Vertical Variation

    In addition to geographical variation in salinity, there are also changes in salinity with depth. As we have seen, most differences in salinity are due to variations in evaporation, precipitation, runoff, and ice cover. All of these process occur at the ocean surface, not at depth, so the most pronounced differences in salinity should be found in surface waters. Salinity in deeper water remains relatively uniform, as it is unaffected by these surface processes. Some representative salinity profiles are shown in Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\). At the surface, the top 200 m or so show relatively uniform salinity in what is called the mixed layer. Winds, waves, and surface currents stir up the surface water, causing a great deal of mixing in this layer and fairly uniform salinity conditions. Below the mixed layer is an area of rapid salinity change over a small change in depth. This zone of rapid change is called the halocline, and it represents a transition between the mixed layer and the deep ocean. Below the halocline, salinity may show little variation down to the seafloor, as this region is far removed from the surface processes that impact salinity. In the figure below, note the low surface salinity at high latitudes, and higher surface salinity at low latitudes as discussed above. Yet despite the surface differences, salinity at depth in both locations may be very similar.

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