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A summary of the path of the thermohaline circulation. Blue paths represent deep-water currents, while red paths represent surface currents
The term thermohaline circulation (THC) refers to the part of the large-scale ocean circulation that is driven by global density gradients created by surface heat and freshwater fluxes. The adjective thermohaline derives from thermo- referring to temperature and -haline referring to salt content, factors which together determine the density of sea water. Wind-driven surface currents (such as the Gulf Stream) head polewards from the equatorial Atlantic Ocean, cooling all the while and eventually sinking at high latitudes (forming North Atlantic Deep Water). This dense water then flows into the ocean basins. While the bulk of it upwells in the Southern Ocean, the oldest waters (with a transit time of around 1600 years) upwell in the North Pacific (Primeau, 2005). Extensive mixing therefore takes place between the ocean basins, reducing differences between them and making the Earth's ocean a global system. On their journey, the water masses transport both energy (in the form of heat) and matter (solids, dissolved substances and gases) around the globe. As such, the state of the circulation has a large impact on the climate of the Earth.
The thermohaline circulation is sometimes called the ocean conveyor belt, the great ocean conveyor, or the global conveyor belt. On occasion, it is used to refer to the meridional overturning circulation (often abbreviated as MOC). The term MOC, however, is more accurate and well defined, as it is difficult to separate the part of the circulation which is actually driven by temperature and salinity alone as opposed to other factors such as the wind. Temperature and salinity gradients can also lead to a circulation which does not add to the MOC itself.
1.1 Formation of deep water masses
1.2 Movement of thermohaline circulation
1.3 Quantitative Estimation
2 Gulf Stream
4 Effects on global climate
7 See also
8 External links
The movement of surface currents pushed by the wind is intuitive: we have all seen wind ripples on the surface of a pond. Thus the deep ocean devoid of wind was assumed to be perfectly static by early oceanographers. However, modern instrumentation shows that current velocities in deep water masses can be significant (although much less than surface speeds).
In the deep ocean, the predominant driving force is differences in density, caused by salinity and temperature (the more saline the denser, and the colder the denser). There is often confusion over the components of the circulation that are wind and density driven. Note that ocean currents due to tides are also significant in many places; most prominent in relatively shallow coastal areas, tidal currents can also be significant in the deep ocean.
The density of ocean water is not globally homogeneous, but varies significantly and discretely. Sharply defined boundaries exist between water masses which form at the surface, and subsequently maintain their own identity within the ocean. They position themselves one above or below each other according to their density, which depends on both temperature and salinity.
Warm seawater expands and is thus less dense than cooler seawater. Saltier water is denser than fresher water because the dissolved salts fill interstices between water molecules, resulting in more mass per unit volume. Lighter water masses float over denser ones (just as a piece of wood or ice will float on water, see buoyancy). This is known as "stable stratification". When dense water masses are first formed, they are not stably stratified. In order to take up their most stable positions, water masses of different densities must flow, providing a driving force for deep currents.
The thermohaline circulation is mainly triggered by the formation of deep water masses in the North Atlantic and the Southern Ocean and Haline forcing caused by differences in temperature and salinity of the water.
Formation of deep water masses
The dense water masses that sink into the deep basins are formed in quite specific areas of the North Atlantic and the Southern Ocean. In these polar regions, seawater at the surface of the ocean is intensively cooled by the wind. Wind moving over the water also produces a great deal of evaporation, leading to a decrease in temperature, called evaporative cooling. Evaporation removes only molecules of pure water, resulting in an increase in the salinity of the seawater left behind, and thus an increase in the density of the water mass. In the Norwegian Sea evaporative cooling is predominant, and the sinking water mass, the North Atlantic Deep Water (NADW), fills the basin and spills southwards through...(and so on)
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