Winds blowing along the South American coast bring cold, deep ocean water to the surface. This is one of several ways that the ocean and atmosphere in the Southeast Pacific are connected.
Courtesy of NOAA

Ocean-Atmosphere Coupling in the Southeast Pacific

The ocean and the atmosphere in the Southeast Pacific Ocean are connected in many ways.

Strong trade winds blow northward along the west coast of South America. These winds stir up the ocean, bringing cold, nutrient-rich waters up from the depths. Marine organisms flourish in the coastal waters, which are one of the most productive fisheries in the world. Sea surface temperatures in the region are much colder than at comparable latitudes elsewhere.

The trade winds carry dry air. Cold ocean water is less prone to evaporation than warmer water would be. Lack of atmospheric moisture combines with the physical geography of the Andes Mountains to create Chile's Atacama Desert, one of the most arid regions on Earth.

Various types of aerosol particles are found in this region. Abundant marine plankton generate sulfate aerosols, while high winds help produce ocean spray that propels sea salt aerosols (mixed with numerous organic compounds from the ocean's surface layer) aloft. The trade winds also carry industrial pollutants out to sea. Plentiful aerosols, which serve as cloud condensation nuclei, combine with cold ocean temperatures and dry air to create a persistent layer of stratocumulus clouds over the ocean. Extensive cloud cover shades the ocean surface, helping keep the sea surface cool.

The influence of ocean-atmosphere coupling extends far beyond this region. Periodic changes in the wind patterns alter ocean circulation throughout the Pacific basin. These variations produce the infamous El Niño and La Niña events.

Last modified October 27, 2008 by Jennifer Bergman.

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