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9.9: Deep Currents

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  • Currents flow through oceans in an interconnected pattern. Largely surface water currents are north of the deep water currents.
    Red 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.

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