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8.5: Oceans and Coastal Environments

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  • Significance of the Oceans

    The oceans make up 70 percent of the planet and contains 97 percent of all the water on Earth. The vast amount of water stores the majority of the planet’s moisture, terrestrial energy, and heat from the Sun. This energy is transferred between the equator and the two poles by larger surface currents by winds and deep ocean currents driven by differences in ocean density. It also provides the moisture and energy for storm systems and ultimately global climates.

    Phytoplankton, microscopic plants and animals in the oceans provide the foundation of the global food web of species. The earth’s oceans are so vital for life that over 40 percent of the world’s population live 7.4 billion people near coastal areas.

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    As terrestrial creatures, humans think of the importance of the planet’s land surfaces, yet Earth is a planet consisting of 70 percent water. From space, the dominance of water is obvious because most of it is stored in Earth’s oceans.Earth would not be the same planet without its oceans. The oceans, along with the atmosphere, keep Earth’s surface temperatures fairly constant worldwide. While some places on Earth get as cold as -7 degrees Celsius and others as hot as 55 degrees Celsius, the range is only 125 degrees Celsius. On Mercury temperatures go from -180 degrees Celsius to 430 degrees Celsius, a range of 610 degrees Celsius.The oceans, along with the atmosphere, distribute heat around the planet. The oceans absorb heat near the equator and then transport that solar energy to polar regions. The oceans also moderate climate within a region. At the same latitude, the temperature range is smaller along coastal areas compared to areas farther inland. Along coastal areas, summer temperatures are not as hot, and winter temperatures are not as cold, because water takes a long time to heat up or cool down.


    The oceans are an essential part of Earth’s water cycle. Since they cover so much of the planet, most evaporation comes from the ocean and most precipitation falls on the oceans.The oceans are also home to an enormous amount of life. That is, they have tremendous biodiversity. Tiny ocean plants create the base of a food web that supports all sorts of life forms. Marine life makes up the majority of all biomass on Earth. (Biomass is the total mass of living organisms in a given area.) These organisms supply us with food and even the oxygen created by marine plants.


    Recall from the chapter on Plate Tectonics that the ocean floor is not flat: mid-ocean ridges, deep sea trenches, and other features all rise sharply above or plunge deeply below the abyssal plains. In fact, Earth’s tallest mountain is Mauna Kea volcano, which rises 10,203 m (33,476 ft.)meters) from the Pacific Ocean floor to become one of the volcanic mountains of Hawaii. The deepest canyon is also on the ocean floor, the Challenger Deep in the Marianas Trench, 10,916 m (35,814 ft). The mapping of the ocean floor and coastal margins is called bathymetry.The continental margin is the transition from the land to the deep sea or, geologically speaking, from continental crust to oceanic crust. More than one-quarter of the ocean basin is continental margin.

    PictureAverage composition of the ocean.

    Water is a polar molecule so it can dissolve many substances such as salts, sugars, acids, bases, and organic molecules. Where does the salt in seawater come from? As water moves through rock and soil on land it picks up ions. This is the flip side of weathering. Salts comprise about 3.5% of the mass of ocean water, but the salt content or salinity is different in different locations.In places like estuaries, seawater mixes with fresh water, causing salinity to be much lower than average. Where there is lots of evaporation but little circulation of water, salinity can be much higher. The Dead Sea has 30% salinity—nearly nine times the average salinity of ocean water. It is called the Dead Sea because nearly nothing can survive within it because of its salinity. Earthquide has aninteractive ocean maps can show salinity, temperature, nutrients, and other characteristics.Differences in water density are responsible for deep ocean currents. With so many dissolved substances mixed in seawater, what is the density (mass per volume) of seawater relative to fresh water? Water density increases as: salinity increases; temperature decreases; pressure increases

    Layers of the Ocean


    In 1960, two men in a specially designed submarine called the Triestedescended into a submarine trench called the Challenger Deep (10,910 meters). The average depth of the ocean is 3,790 m, a lot more shallow than the deep trenches but still an incredible depth for sea creatures to live in. There are three major factors that make the deep ocean hard to inhabit: the absence of light, low temperature, and extremely high pressure.

    To better understand regions of the ocean, scientists define the water column by depth. They divide the entire ocean into two zones vertically, based on light level. Large lakes are divided into similar regions. Sunlight only penetrates the sea surface to a depth of about 200 m, creating the photic zone (consisting of the Sunlight Zone and Twilight Zone). Organisms that photosynthesize depend on sunlight for food and so are restricted to the photic zone. Since tiny photosynthetic organisms, known as phytoplankton, supply nearly all of the energy and nutrients to the rest of the marine food web, most other marine organisms live in or at least visit the photic zone. In the aphotic zone (consisting of the Midnight Zone and the Abyss) there is not enough light for photosynthesis. The aphotic zone makes up the majority of the ocean, but has a relatively small amount of its life, both in diversity of type and in numbers.

    The seabed is also divided into the zones described above, but the ocean itself is also divided horizontally by distance from the shore. Nearest to the shore lies the intertidal (littoral) zone, the region between the high and low tidal marks. This hallmark of the intertidal is change: water is in constant motions in waves, tides, and currents. The land is sometimes under water and sometimes is exposed. The neritic zone is from low tide mark and slopes gradually downward to the edge of the seaward side of the continental shelf. Some sunlight penetrates to the seabed here. The oceanic zone is the entire rest of the ocean from the bottom edge of the neritic zone, where sunlight does not reach the bottom. The sea bed and water column are subdivided further, as seen in the figure above.


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    Tsunami are described in the Earthquakes chapter as damaging waves that result from the sharp jolt to the water from an undersea earthquake. Landslides, meteorite impacts, or any other jolt to ocean water may form a tsunami. Tsunami can travel at speeds of 800 kilometers per hour (500 miles per hour). Tsunami have small wave heights and long wavelengths so they are usually unnoticed at sea. As the wave rides up the continental shelf the wave height increases.

    The wave speed of a tsunami is also slowed by friction with the shallower ocean floor, which causes the wavelength to decrease, creating a much taller wave.

    Many people caught in a tsunami have no warning of its approach. Since the wavelength is long, a long time can pass between crests or troughs onshore. In 1755 in Lisbon, an offshore earthquake caused a great deal of damage on land. People rushed to the open space of the shore and discovered that the water was flowing seaward fast. The trough of the tsunami wave reached shore first. People who went out onto the open beach were drowned when the crest of the wave reached shore.

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    Tidal Waves


    Tides are the daily rise and fall of sea level at any given place. The pull of the Moon’s gravity on Earth is the primarily cause of tides and the pull of the Sun’s gravity on Earth is the secondary cause. The Moon has a greater effect because, although it is much smaller than the Sun, it is much closer. The Moon’s pull is about twice that of the Sun’s.

    To understand the tides it is easiest to start with the effect of the Moon on Earth. As the Moon revolves around our planet, its gravity pulls Earth toward it. The lithosphere is unable to move much but the water is pulled by the gravity and a bulge is created. This bulge is the high tide beneath the Moon. The Moon’s gravity then pulls the Earth toward it, leaving the water on the opposite side of the planet behind. This creates a second high tide bulge on the opposite side of Earth from the Moon. These two water bulges on opposite sides of the Earth aligned with the Moon are the high tidesClick here to learn more.

    Since so much water is pulled into the two high tides, low tides form between the two high tides. As the Earth rotates beneath the Moon, a single spot will experience two high tides and two low tides every day.

    The tidal range is the difference between the ocean level at high tide and the ocean at low tide. The tidal range in a location depends on a number of factors, including the slope of the seafloor. Water appears to move a greater distance on a gentle slope than on a steep slope.


    If you look at the diagram of high and low tides on a circular Earth above, you’ll see that tides are waves. So when the Sun and Moon are aligned, what do you expect the tides to look like?

    Waves are additive so when the gravitational pull of both bodies is in the same direction the high tides add and the low tides add. Highs are higher and lows are lower than at other times through the month. These more extreme tides, with a greater tidal range, are called spring tides. Spring tides don’t just occur in the spring; they occur whenever the Moon is in a new-moon or full-moon phase, about every 14 days. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has a simple diagram of this process.

    Neap tides are tides that have the smallest tidal range, and they occur when the Earth, the Moon, and the Sun form a 90o angle. They occur exactly halfway between the spring tides, when the Moon is at first or last quarter. How do the tides add up to create neap tides? The Moon’s high tide occurs in the same place as the Sun’s low tide and the Moon’s low tide in the same place as the Sun’s high tide. At neap tides, the tidal range relatively small. Here is another simple animation of spring and neap tides from NOAA.

    High tides occur about twice a day, about every 12 hours and 25 minutes. The reason is that the Moon takes 24 hours and 50 minutes to rotate once around the Earth so the Moon is over the same location 24 hours and 50 minutes later. Since high tides occur twice a day, one arrives each 12 hours and 25 minutes. What is the time between a high tide and the next low tide? This animation shows the effect of the Moon and Sun on the tides.

    Some coastal areas do not follow this pattern at all. These coastal areas may have one high and one low tide per day or a different amount of time between two high tides. These differences are often because of local conditions, such as the shape of the coastline that the tide is entering.

    Surface Currents


    Ocean water moves in predictable ways along the ocean surface.Surface currents can flow for thousands of kilometers and can reach depths of hundreds of meters. These surface currents do not depend on weather; they remain unchanged even in large storms because they depend on factors that do not change.

    Surface currents are created by three things: global wind patterns, the rotation of the Earth, and the shape of the ocean basins.

    Surface currents are extremely important because they distribute heat around the planet and are a major factor influencing climate around the globe.

    Winds on Earth are either global or local. Global winds blow in the same directions all the time and are related to the unequal heating of Earth by the Sun — that is, more solar radiation strikes the equator than the polar regions –- and the rotation of the Earth — that is, the Coriolis effect. The causes of the global wind patterns will be described in detail later when we look at the atmosphere. Water in the surface currents is pushed in the direction of the major wind belts:

    • trade winds: east to west between the equator and 30 degrees North and 30 degrees South
    • westerlies: west to east in the middle latitudes
    • polar easterlies: east to west between 50 degrees and 60 degrees north and south of the equator and the north and south pole

    Wind is not the only factor that affects ocean currents. The Coriolis effect describes how Earth’s rotation steers winds and surface ocean currents. Coriolis causes freely moving objects to appear to move to the right in the Northern Hemisphere and to the left in the Southern Hemisphere. The objects themselves are actually moving straight, but the Earth is rotating beneath them, so they seem to bend or curve.

    An example might make the Coriolis effect easier to visualize. If an airplane flies 500 miles due north, it will not arrive at the city that was due north of it when it began its journey. Over the time it takes for the airplane to fly 500 miles, that city moved, along with the Earth it sits on. The airplane will therefore arrive at a city to the west of the original city (in the Northern Hemisphere), unless the pilot has compensated for the change. So to reach his intended destination, the pilot must also veer right while flying north.

    As wind or an ocean current moves, the Earth spins underneath it. As a result, an object moving north or south along the Earth will appear to move in a curve, instead of in a straight line. Wind or water that travels toward the poles from the equator is deflected to the east, while wind or water that travels toward the equator from the poles gets bent to the west. The Coriolis effect bends the direction of surface currents to the right in the Northern Hemisphere and left in the Southern Hemisphere.

    Coriolis effect is demonstrated using a metal ball and a rotating plate in this video. The ball moves in a circular path just like a freely moving particle of gas or liquid moves on the rotating Earth.

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    Shape of the Ocean Basin

    When a surface current collides with land, the current must change direction. In the figure below, the Atlantic South Equatorial Current travels westward along the equator until it reaches South America. At Brazil, some of it goes north and some goes south. Because of Coriolis effect, the water goes right in the Northern Hemisphere and left in the Southern Hemisphere.

    You can see on the map below the major surface ocean currents that the surface ocean currents create loops called gyres. The Antarctic Circumpolar Current is unique because it travels uninhibited around the globe. Why is it the only current to go all the way around?


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    Local and Surface Currents


    The surface currents described above are all large and unchanging. Local surface currents are also found along shorelines. Two are long shore currentsand rip currents. Rip currents are potentially dangerous currents that carry large amounts of water offshore quickly. Look at the rip-current animation to determine what to do if you are caught in a rip current.  Each summer in the United States at least a few people die when they are caught in rip currents.

    Surface currents play an enormous role in Earth’s climate. Even though the equator and poles have very different climates, these regions would have more extremely different climates if ocean currents did not transfer heat from the equatorial regions to the higher latitudes.

    The Gulf Stream is a river of warm water in the Atlantic Ocean, about 160 kilometers wide and about a kilometer deep. Water that enters the Gulf Stream is heated as it travels along the equator. The warm water then flows up the east coast of North America and across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe. The energy the Gulf Stream transfers is enormous: more than 100 times the world’s energy demand.

    The Gulf Stream’s warm waters raise temperatures in the North Sea, which raises the air temperatures over land between 3 to 6 degrees C (5 to 11 degrees F). London, U.K., for example, is at the same latitude as Quebec, Canada. However, London’s average January temperature is 3.8 degrees C (38 degrees F), while Quebec’s is only -12 degrees C (10 degrees F). Because air traveling over the warm water in the Gulf Stream picks up a lot of water, London gets a lot of rain. In contrast, Quebec is much drier and receives its precipitation as snow.

    Deep Currents

    PictureRed arrows indicate surface water currents and blue arrows indicate deep water currents.

    Thermohaline circulation drives deep ocean circulation. Thermo means heat and haline refers to salinity. Differences in temperature and in salinity change the density of seawater. So thermohaline circulation is the result of density differences in water masses because of their different temperature and salinity.

    What is the temperature and salinity of very dense water? Lower temperature and higher salinity yield the densest water. When a volume of water is cooled, the molecules move less vigorously so same number of molecules takes up less space and the water is denser. If salt is added to a volume of water, there are more molecules in the same volume so the water is denser.

    Changes in temperature and salinity of seawater take place at the surface. Water becomes dense near the poles. Cold polar air cools the water and lowers its temperature, increasing its salinity. Fresh water freezes out of seawater to become sea ice, which also increases the salinity of the remaining water. This very cold, very saline water is very dense and sinks. This sinking is called downwelling.

    Two things then happen. The dense water pushes deeper water out of its way and that water moves along the bottom of the ocean. This deep water mixes with less dense water as it flows. Surface currents move water into the space vacated at the surface where the dense water sank. Water also sinks into the deep ocean off of Antarctica. Since unlimited amounts of water cannot sink to the bottom of the ocean, water must rise from the deep ocean to the surface somewhere. This process is called upwelling.

    Generally, upwelling occurs along the coast when wind blows water strongly away from the shore. This leaves a void that is filled by deep water that rises to the surface. Upwelling is extremely important where it occurs. During its time on the bottom, the cold deep water has collected nutrients that have fallen down through the water column. Upwelling brings those nutrients to the surface. Those nutrient support the growth of plankton and form the base of a rich ecosystem. California, South America, South Africa, and the Arabian Sea all benefit from offshore upwelling.

    Upwelling also takes place along the equator between the North and South Equatorial Currents. Winds blow the surface water north and south of the equator so deep water undergoes upwelling. The nutrients rise to the surface and support a great deal of life in the equatorial oceans.

    Studying the Seafloor


    Oceanographers like to say that we know more about the dark side of the Moon than we do about the oceans. That statement is doubly true of the seafloor. Although modern technology has allowed us to learn more about the seafloor, vast regions remain unexplored. Scuba divers can only dive to about 40 meters and they cannot stay down there for very long. Although this is good for researching the organisms and ecosystems very near a coast, most oceanic research requires accessing greater depths.

    In the Plate Tectonics chapter you learned that echo sounders designed to locate enemy submarines allowed scientists to create bathymetric maps of the seafloor. Prior to this advance, explorers mapped a small amount of the seafloor by painstakingly dropping a line over the side of a ship to measure the depth at one tiny spot at a time.

    Samples of seawater from different depths in the water column are needed to understand ocean chemistry. To do this bottles are placed along a cable at regular depths and closed as a weight is dropped down the cable. The water trapped in the bottle can be analyzed later in a laboratory.

    Scientists are also interested in collecting rock and sediment samples from the seafloor. A dredge is a giant rectangular bucket that is dragged along behind a ship to collect loose rocks. Gravity corers are metal tubes that fall to the seafloor and slice into the sediments to collect a sample. The research vessel, the Joides Resolution, drills deep into the seafloor to collect samples of the sediment and ocean crust. Scientists analyze the samples for chemistry and paleomagnetism.


    Samples of seawater and rocks can be collected directly by scientists in a submersible. These subs can take scientists down to make observations and the subs have arms for collecting samples. The submersible Alvin is an HOV, a human operated vehicle. Alvin can dive up to 4,500 m beneath the ocean surface and has made more than 4000 dives since 1964. Other submersibles can dive deeper. View a slide show of DSV Alvin and its history from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

    To avoid the expense, dangers, and limitations of human missions under the sea, remotely operated vehicles or ROV’s, allow scientists to study the ocean’s depths by using small vehicles carrying cameras and scientific instruments. ROVs were used to study the Titanic, which would have been far too dangerous for a manned sub to enter. Scientists control ROVs electronically with sophisticated operating systems.

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