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Illustrates how fluids absorb and diffuse heat.

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Do you see the water bubbling in this pot? The water is boiling hot. How does all of the water in the pot get hot when it is heated only from the bottom by the gas flame? The answer is convection.

Defining Convection

Convection is the transfer of thermal energy by particles moving through a fluid (either a gas or a liquid). Thermal energy is the total kinetic energy of moving particles of matter, and the transfer of thermal energy is called heat. Convection is one of three ways that thermal energy can be transferred (the other ways are conduction and thermal radiation). Thermal energy is always transferred from matter with a higher temperature to matter with a lower temperature.

How Does Convection Occur?

The Figure below shows how convection occurs, using hot water in a pot as an example. When particles in one area of a fluid (in this case, the water at the bottom of the pot) gain thermal energy, they move more quickly, have more collisions, and spread farther apart. This decreases the density of the particles, so they rise up through the fluid. As they rise, they transfer their thermal energy to other particles of the fluid and cool off in the process. With less energy, the particles move more slowly, have fewer collisions, and move closer together. This increases their density, so they sink back down through the fluid. When they reach the bottom of the fluid, the cycle repeats. The result is a loop of moving particles called a convection current

Diagram illustrating how heat is transferred in a boiling pot

Examples of Convection

Convection currents transfer thermal energy through many fluids, not just hot water in a pot. For example, convection currents transfer thermal energy through molten rock below Earth’s surface, through water in the oceans, and through air in the atmosphere. Convection currents in the atmosphere create winds. You can see one way this happens in the Figure below. The land heats up and cools off faster than the water because it has lower specific heat. Therefore, the land gets warmer during the day and cooler at night than the water does. During the day, warm air rises above the land and cool air from the water moves in to take its place. During the night, the opposite happens. Warm air rises above the water and cool air from the land moves out to take its place.  

Diagram illustrating convection currents in an ocean

Q: During the day, in which direction is thermal energy of the air transferred? In which direction is it transferred during the night?

A: During the day, thermal energy is transferred from the air over the land to the air over the water. During the night, thermal energy is transferred in the opposite direction.


  • Convection is the transfer of thermal energy by particles moving through a fluid. Thermal energy is always transferred from an area with a higher temperature to an area with a lower temperature.
  • Moving particles transfer thermal energy through a fluid by forming convection currents.
  • Convection currents move thermal energy through many fluids, including molten rock inside Earth, water in the oceans, and air in the atmosphere.


  1. What is convection?
  2. Describe how convection occurs and why convection currents form.
  3. Add arrows representing convection currents to the room in the Figure below to show how thermal energy moves from the radiator to the rest of the room. Label areas of the room that are warm and cool.

Exercise for drawing direction of convection currents created by a radiator

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convection Transfer of thermal energy by particles moving through a fluid.
convection current Flow of particles in a fluid that occurs because of differences in temperature and density.

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