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Geosciences LibreTexts

9.6: Surface Currents

  • Page ID
    12845
  • 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.

    A map of the different currents across the world.
    Surface ocean currents

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

    Global Wind Currents

    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 that more solar radiation strikes the equator than the polar regions, and the rotation of the Earth called 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

    Rotation of the Earth

    Wind is not the only factor that affects ocean currents. The Coriolis effect describes how Earth’s rotation steers winds and surface ocean currents. The Coriolis effect 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.

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