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8.17: Deep Ocean Currents

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12
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How are ocean currents like a conveyor belt?

Seawater doesn't just circulate around the surface, it moves through the deep sea. Just like at the surface, normal circulation patterns transport much of the water. Seawater is moved as if on a conveyor through the surface and deep ocean, a trip that takes hundreds of years.

Deep 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.

This video lecture discusses the vertical distribution of life in the oceans. Seawater density creates currents, which provide different habitats for different creatures (5d): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LA1jxeXDsdA (6:12).

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 (Figure below). Water also sinks into the deep ocean off of Antarctica.

Cold water (blue lines) sinks in the North Atlantic, flows along the bottom of the ocean and upwells in the Pacific or Indian. The water then travels in surface currents (red lines) back to the North Atlantic. Deep water also forms 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 (Figure below).

Upwelling forces denser water from below to take the place of less dense water at the surface that is pushed away by the wind.

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 nutrients 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.

An animation of upwelling is seen here: http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/education/kits/currents/03coastal4.html.

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.


  • Cooling or evaporation of fresh water from the sea surface makes surface water dense and causes it to sink.
  • Downwelling of cold, dense water drives thermohaline circulation.
  • Upwelling takes place at some coastlines or along the equator and brings cool, nutrient-rich water to the surface.

Making Connections


Use this resource to answer the questions that follow.


1. How does temperature effect the density of water?

2. How does salinity affect density?

3. What does the density difference create?

4. Where is the NADW?

5. Where is the AABW?

6. How long does take a water molecule to complete the circuit of the global conveyor belt?

7. What is an upwelling? What does it do?


1. Why is upwelling important?

2. How does downwelling drive thermohaline circulation?

3. What would happen if water in the north Pacific no longer became cold and dense enough to sink?

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Ocean water that sinks due to higher density.

thermohaline circulation

Temperature and salinity (density) driven currents that drive deep ocean circulation.


Cold, nutrient-rich water that rises from oceanic depths.

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Difficulty Level:
At Grade
Date Created:
Feb 24, 2012
Last Modified:
Aug 07, 2016
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