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Earth's Ocean - Windows to the Universe

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Earth's Ocean

Earth's ocean covers more than 70% of our planet's surface. There are five major ocean basins. The Pacific Ocean is the largest. It’s so large that it covers a third of the Earth's surface. The Atlantic Ocean is east of the Americas and west of Europe and Africa. The Indian Ocean is south of Asia and the Middle East and east of Africa. The Arctic Ocean is in the north polar region. The Southern Ocean surrounds Antarctica in the south polar region.

Seawater is salty. Anyone who has taken a gulp of water while swimming in the ocean knows that. The saltiness of the water is called salinity. The chemistry of the seawater includes more than salt. It depends on what become dissolved in it over time.

Ocean water is always moving. It moves around surface ocean currents in the upper 400 meters of the ocean. Water moves around the ocean by upwelling, a process that brings water from the deep ocean to shallow areas, as well as downwelling, a process that sends water from the surface to the deep ocean. Currents along coastlines move water as well as sand. Moving water transports heat from the Sun around the planet, which has an effect on climate. Complex climate models called coupled ocean-atmosphere models take into account both the atmosphere and the ocean to describe the Earth.

Each day ocean water moves with the tides, shifting where the water meets the shore in an endless cycle. Tidal cycles are perhaps most easy to see at estuaries. The ocean's tides are one type of tide created by gravitational force.

Over a long time water circulates from the deep ocean to shallow ocean and back again to the deep. This circulation of seawater is called the global ocean conveyor or thermohaline circulation. As Earth’s climate warms the global ocean conveyor might change its pattern.

The height of the ocean surface is called sea level. Over a long time, sea level can change for a number of reasons. Today sea level is rising rapidly as Earth’s climate warms.

Coral reefs are affected as the ocean changes because of global warming and other changes such as pollution. As the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide becomes dissolved in seawater the ocean becomes more acidic, which is harmful to corals and other marine life.

Last modified February 15, 2011 by Jennifer Bergman.

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The Southern Ocean

The Southern Ocean is a bit different. Many mapmakers do not even recognize it as an ocean. The Southern Ocean (sometimes known as the Antarctic Ocean or South Polar Ocean) surrounds Antarctica in the...more

Antarctica

Antarctica is unique. It is the coldest, windiest, and driest continent on Earth. The land is barren and mostly covered with a thick sheet of ice. Antarctica is almost entirely south of the Antarctic Circle...more

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About 70% of the Earth is covered with water. Over 97% of that water is found in the oceans. Everyone who has taken in a mouthful of ocean water while swimming knows that the ocean is really salty! Dissolved...more

Surface Ocean Currents

The water at the ocean surface is moved primarily by winds that blow in certain patterns because of the Earth’s spin and the Coriolis Effect. Winds are able to move the top 400 meters of the ocean creating...more

Ocean Upwelling

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Currents at the Coast

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Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part by the National Science Foundation and NASA, our Founding Partners (the American Geophysical Union and American Geosciences Institute) as well as through Institutional, Contributing, and Affiliate Partners, individual memberships and generous donors. Thank you for your support! NASA AGU AGI NSF