MadSci Network: Earth Sciences

Re: What causes ocean currents

Date: Fri Nov 20 15:24:08 1998
Posted By: Everett Rubel, MadSci Admin
Area of science: Earth Sciences
ID: 909589219.Es

Ocean currents on a large scale are driven primarily by solar radiation.  Ocean 
waters near the Equator are heated to a warm temperature by the Sun.  Near the 
poles, ocean waters cool at the surface and sink.  The dense cool water piles 
up on the ocean bottom and flows toward the Equator.  The cool waters from the 
poles displace the warm water already there.  This warm water is forced to flow 
away from the Equator toward the poles.  You can see that there is a continuing 
cycle here, since the warm water from the Equator will cool as it approaches a 
polar region, while the cool water from the poles is heated at the Equator.  
This cycle has been described as a very large heat-driven engine.

Other forces besides the Sun affect ocean currents.  One major force is the 
Coriolis force which tends to divert water flowing away from a pole to the West 
and water flowing away from the Equator to the East.  Another constraint on 
currents is the depth of the ocean.  Shallow water and solid land both cause 
currents to change direction.  

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