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This picture shows a scientist on a research ship. He is getting ready to lower some instruments into the ocean. These instruments measure the chemistry of the ocean.
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Image courtesy of NOAA, photograph by Captain Robert A. Pawlowski.

Ocean Chemistry

The oceans are full of water. Ocean water is not just pure H2O, though. Ocean water has many different chemicals in it, especially salt.

The salt in sea water is a lot like the salt we sprinkle on food. Table salt is made up of the chemical sodium chloride (NaCl). The salt in ocean water is mostly sodium chloride, too. However, the salt in the oceans has other kinds of salt in it too. The main other chemicals in sea salt are magnesium, sulfate, calcium, and potassium.

Why is the ocean salty? When it rains on land, some of the water dissolves minerals in rocks. That water flows in rivers to the sea. It carries the minerals with it. When water evaporates back out of the ocean, it leaves the minerals behind. The minerals make sea water salty.

Some parts of the ocean are saltier than others. For example, melting glaciers dump lots of fresh water into the ocean. Places in the ocean near melting glaciers aren't as salty as the rest of the ocean.

Some gases are dissolved in sea water too. There is carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere dissolved in sea water. That is important because carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. Scientists want to know how much CO2 the oceans can hold. It will help them predict climate change. When carbon dioxide dissolves in water, it makes an acid. Too much acid can harm corals, shellfish, and other creatures that live in the seas.

People and other living things also affect the chemistry of the oceans. If farmers use too much fertilizer, some of it gets washed into the rivers and then on down to the seas. Some tiny creatures in the ocean love the nitrogen from the fertilizer and grow like crazy. As they grow, they use up lots of oxygen. When large areas of the ocean lose oxygen, fish and crabs and other animals die.

Last modified June 1, 2010 by Lisa Gardiner.

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The Summer 2010 issue of The Earth Scientist, available in our online store, includes articles on rivers and snow, classroom planetariums, satellites and oceanography, hands-on astronomy, and global warming.

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Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA