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Chapter: 11th Geography : Chapter 5 : Hydrosphere

Ocean currents

Large mass of moving water from one part of the ocean to another in a definite direction is called as ocean current.

Ocean currents

Large mass of moving water from one part of the ocean to another in a definite direction is called as ocean current. The movement is produced due to earth’s rotation, temperature difference of ocean water, salinity, density and some extent due to air pressure and winds. Ocean currents can be classified on the basis of mode of origin, volume and velocity and boundaries.

In the order of velocity ocean currents can be classified as drifts, currents and streams. Drifts are movement of surface water of low velocity influenced by prevailing winds, currents are movement of oceanic water in definite direction and greater velocity and streams are larger mass of water moving in a definite direction and much greater velocity than the drifts and currents. Ocean currents are distinguished by the temperature they possess. When ocean currents originate from equator it is termed as warm current. Likewise when a current starts from polar region it is termed as cold current.

Vertical circulation of ocean water takes place due to difference in salinity and temperature between the surface and the water deep below. Upwelling is an oceanographic phenomenon that involves movement of dense, cooler, and usually nutrient-rich water towards the ocean surface, replacing the warmer, usually nutrient-depleted surface water. Down welling is the process of accumulation and sinking of cold high saline water beneath warmer or fresher water.

Major ocean currents of the world

In every ocean, there is circulation of ocean water from Equator to pole and from pole to equator. The warm currents from the equator flows over the surface of ocean towards the pole and sink to the bottom of the ocean floor in the higher latitudes due to high density and flow towards the equator to complete the circulation. This large scale circulation is known as gyre.

The gyre circulates is clockwise in the northern hemisphere and anti-clockwise in the southern hemisphere.

a. Ocean currents of the Pacific Ocean

1. North Equatorial current.

North equatorial current originates from Revilla Gigedo island west of Mexico and flows towards the Philippines Island covering a distance of about 12,000 km from east west. It is a warm current. It derives from its water from the Californian current and the South east Monsoon drift which flows north along the Mexican coast. The volume of water increases from east to west as many small currents join it from right. It gets divided into two and the northern branch joins the Kuroshio Current and the southern branch abruptly turns and forms the Pacific counter current.

2. South equatorial current.

South equatorial current is originated due the action of the trade winds from east to west. It is a warm current. It extends for about 13,600km from east to west. It is stronger than the North equatorial current. It is further divided into many branches due to the presence of many islands and uneven surface topography.

3. Kuroshio current ( Black Tide)

It is a warm ocean current flowing in north easterly direction up to 30o N latitude and it carries warm water off the Formosa coast. It flows towards north and meets Oyashio cold current off the Kuril Islands. It is also called as Japan current.

4. Oyashio Current( Parental Tide)

It originates from the Bering Strait and flows towards south carrying cold water. It is a cold current. It meets with Kuroshio warm current and Aleutian current.

5. Californian Current.

Californian current is flowing towards south along the west coast of U.S.A between 48o N and 23o N latitudes. It is cold current which exhibits great amount of up welled water. When it enters the region of Trade winds, it is deflected to the right and joins the equatorial current.

6. Peru Current.

Peru Current is perhaps the best studied ocean current of the Pacific Ocean. Alexander Von Humboldt in 1802 noted the details of the Peru Current. Hence, it is also known as Humboldt Current. It is a cold current. It is flowing towards north along the west coast of South America carrying cold water from northerly deflection of the Sub-Antarctica water moving in 40o S.

7. El Nino or Counter current.

It is a warm counter ocean current of the pacific equatorial waters flowing south ward at 400 m depth to a distance about 180 km.

8. West Wind Drift.

It is an easterly moving drift in the Pacific Ocean extending from Tasmania to the South American coast. It is a cold current. The speed of the drift is greater under the influence of Roaring Forties. It splits into two branches and one moves south around the Cape Horn into the Atlantic Ocean and the Other one moves northward along the Peruvian coast due to deflection and joins the Peru Current.

b. Currents of the Atlantic Ocean

1. North equatorial current.

North equatorial current is flowing from east to west. It is a warm current. It is situated between 5o – 20o N latitudes. After leaving the west coast of Africa, it attains its main characteristics. When it reaches the east coast of South America, it splits into two branches and one branch called Antilles current is moving along the coast of West Indies and other branch is diverted into the Caribbean sea.

2. South Equatorial current.

It is flowing south of equator within 0o – 12o S latitude in between the coast of Africa and South America. It is a warm current. It is a northern continuation of Benguela current. It is stronger than the North equatorial ocean current. It is caused by the action of Trade winds.

3. Gulf Stream.

Gulf Stream starts from the Gulf of Mexico and carries warm waters into the colder latitudes. It is a warm current. It bends with the coastline up to 40th parallel after which the direction is almost to the east, due to the force and the direction of the westerlies and the deflective force of the earth. It joins the labrador cold current near New Found land, Canada after passing through the strait of Florida. The Gulf Stream was discovered by Ponce de Leon in 1513.

4. Canaries Current.

The ocean current flowing along the Western coast of North Africa between Maderia and Cape verde is known as the Canaries Current. It is a cold current. It is flowing towards south and merging with the North equatorial current.

5. Labrador Current.

In the north Atlantic, a cold current flows from the Baffin Bay and Davis Strait towards south. It brings cold waters from polar zone and moves along the coast of green land.

6. Benguela current.

It is a cold current flowing northward along the western coast of Africa is known as the Benguela current. It carries cold waters from sub-Antarctica surface water and mixes with south equatorial current.

c. Currents of the Indian Ocean

The south Indian gyre is formed by south equatorial current, Madagascar current west wind drift and west Australian current. To the north of equator the currents in the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal flow in the clockwise direction as southwest monsoon drift and in the anti-clockwise direction as northeast monsoon drift due to the influence of monsoon winds.

The Antarctic circumpolar current flows between 40 to 60° S latitude. It flows from west to east influenced by the westerly and circles around entire Antarctica. There is a counter west ward current within this circum polar current.

d. Currents of the Southern ocean

The southern ocean surrounds the continent of Antarctica. The large oceans, the pacific, the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean merge into this circum-global zone of water to their south. The movement of water in the southern ocean is in one sense a relatively simple, generally west-east circum-polar drift caused under the influence of northwesterly winds. This general flow sends offshoots to the three major oceans to its north. The Peru or Humboldt Current in the Pacific Ocean, the Falkland Current and the Benguela Current in the Atlantic Ocean and the West Australian Current in the Indian Ocean receive a part of their cold waters from the Southern Ocean. 

Besides the surface currents, there is also a very complex system of subsurface currents between the southern Ocean and the oceans to its north.


Generally the water moves from this ocean towards the equator on the surface and at great depths but at in remediate depth, there is a movement of water from the equatorial areas towards the Southern Ocean.


The significance of Ocean Currents


1. Ocean currents play an important role in the earth’s climate. They distribute energy and nutrients within the ocean.


2. Fog is formed where warm current and cold current meet. For example, when the Gulf Stream and Labrador Current meet near New Found land one of the densest fogs is formed.


3. The warm ocean current increases the temperature of an area where it flows to and Cold Ocean current decreases the temperature of the area.


4. The warm current brings heavy rainfall when the wind blows over it becomes warm while the cold current brings drought when the wind blows over it becomes cold and dry. For example, the wind blowing over the Peru Current is cold and dry causing the formation of the Atacama Desert located on the west coast of Peru.


5. It regulates the global temperature. It gives free navigation. The Gulf Stream keeps ports & harbours of Russia and Scandinavia navigable throughout the year. The Kuroshio Current makes ports on Japan navigable during winter.


6. It distributes minerals and pollution added to it becomes highly diluted and later negligible.


7. It helps in growth of juveniles of certain fish and its distribution to other countries - from its place of origin. Some up welling and down welling are due to currents which bring minerals to photic zone used by phytoplankton. Major fishing grounds are located in the zones where cold current and warm current meet.

El Nino

El Nino is a phenomenon that occurs in the equatorial Pacific Ocean characterized by a positive sea surface temperature departure from normal (1971-2000 base period) in the region lying within the latitude 5°N to 5°S and longitudes 120° W to 170°W . This phenomenon occurs every two to seven years (Figure 5.19).

El Nino happens when

·           Sea surface temperature increases between the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean between the country Ecuador and the International Date Line

·           The increase in temperature is sustained for a period of eighteen months to Two years.

·           The temperature increase is up to 30 m beneath the ocean surface.

            When there is a modified vertical air circulation above the Pacific Ocean

Global influence of El Nino

El Nino effect is experienced at Global level. The change in air circulation affects the economy of different countries also. Global weather patterns are altered to such an extent that they affect eco system, agriculture, tropical cyclone, drought, forest fire, floods and flood related health hazards. El Nino influences the jet streams. Due to this phenomenon California experiences heavy rainfall, northern Europe experiences dry winter, Southern Europe experiences mild wet winters, there are less number of cyclones in Sea of Japan, and heavy rain in East Africa. South East Asia experiences severe drought and forest fire. Peru in South America receives heavy rainfall during El Nino.

Increase of temperature in the east Pacific Ocean is correlated with normal monsoon conditions in India while the increase of temperature in the central Pacific has high correlation with drought conditions in India. When temperature increases further to the west it suppresses the Indian Monsoon.

La Nina

La Nina is just the opposite to the condition of El Nino. When trade winds are strong, colder water up wells on the East Pacific Ocean, walker air circulation is confined to the west Pacific, wet condition in Southeast Asia and dry weather in South America is observed.

The difference in the atmospheric pressure between the west and east tropical Southern Pacific Ocean is referred to as Southern Oscillation. Meteorologists have established a close inter link between Southern Oscillation and occurrences of El Nino and La Nina events. The acronym ‘ENSO’(El Nino Southern Oscillation) is often used to study both the phenomena.

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11th Geography : Chapter 5 : Hydrosphere : Ocean currents |

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