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Surface Ocean Circulation


The circulation of the surface ocean is driven primarily by surface winds. As we have seen, winds blow from areas of high atmospheric pressure to regions of low atmospheric pressure. These winds are generally transferring heat from areas where there is excess incoming radiation (the tropics and subtropics) to temperate and higher latitude regions where there is a net loss of heat. Typically speaking, the distribution of pressure on the Earth’s surface is zonal or meridional, with high-pressure bands covering the subtropics and polar regions and low-pressure bands, the equatorial regions, and subpolar regions.

Where winds and surface currents are moving along a coastline, they draw the surface water away from the coast. The surface waters are replaced by waters from below by the upwelling described earlier. This is shown in the figure below.

Diagram to show coastal currents and the way they draw surface water away from the coast.
Coastal currents, surface water, and upwelling
Credit: Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 3.0 (Creative Commons)
Diagram to illustrate upwelling and downwelling
Upwelling and downwelling
Credit: AE Nieblas, CSIRO

Upwelling also happens in parts of the ocean where winds cause surface currents to diverge or move away from one another. Downwelling is the opposite process to upwelling, where surface waters flow downwards and replace deep waters. This occurs in parts of the ocean where surface winds are converging. One place this happens is in the centers of gyres.

Check Your Understanding

Surface ocean circulation question:

Which of the following leads to upwelling?

A. Winds converging
B. Strong tides
C. Strong currents
D. Winds and currents moving along the coast

Click for answer.

D. Winds blowing along the coast will pull surface water with them and draw water from below (upwelling)