Ocean Currents, Tides & Waves : Currents of the World


Ocean water moves in two directions - horizontally and vertically.

Horizontal movements are referred to as Waves and Currents, while vertical changes are called Tides, Upwellings.

Ocean currents are the continuous, predictable, directional movement of seawater driven by earth's rotation, gravity, wind (Coriolis Effect), temperature and water density.

An ocean current flows for great distances and together they create the global conveyor belt, which plays a dominant role in influencing the temperature and determining the climate of the regions through which they travel.

There are two type of Ocean Currents:

1) Surface Currents (Surface Circulation) are the upper 400 meters of the ocean and make up about 10 per cent of all the water in the ocean.

2) Deep Water Currents (Thermohaline Circulation) move around the ocean basins by density driven forces and gravity and make up the other 90 per cent of the ocean.

Ocean currents are influenced by two types of forces:

1) Primary forces

Primary forces like heat, wind, gravity, coriolis force initiate the movement of water.

Heat causes the water to expand, this makes a very slight gradient and water tends to flow down the slope - the flow is normally from east to west.

When air moves across the ocean's surface, it pulls the top layers of water with it through friction.

Surface ocean currents are driven by consistent wind patterns that persist throughout time over the entire globe, such as the jet stream.

Gravity tends to pull the water down to pile of water against the pressure gradient.

But the Coriolis Force intervenes and cause the water to move to the right (in the northern hemisphere) around the mound of water.

These large mounds of water and the flow around them are called Gyres.

This produce large circular currents in all the ocean basins.

Due to Coriolis force which follows Ferrel's law, the general movement of ocean currents in the northern hemisphere is in the clockwise and in the southern hemisphere it is in the anti-clockwise direction.

A notable exception to this trend is seen in the northern part of the Indian Ocean where the current movement changes its direction in response to the seasonal change in the direction of monsoon winds.

2) Secondary forces

Secondary forces like temperature and salinity difference influence the currents to flow.

Temperature difference

The difference in heating of the Sun at the equator and the poles causes a difference in the temperature of ocean water.

At the equator, since the temperature is higher the ocean water gets heated up and expands.

This makes the warm water lighter and hence rises while at the poles, cold water is denser and sinks.

Warm water from the equator slowly moves along the surface towards the poles, while the cold water from the poles slowly creeps along the bottom of the sea towards the equator.

Salinity difference

The density of water also depends on its salinity and the salinity of water varies from place to place.

Waters of low salinity flow on the surface, while waters of high salinity flow at the bottom.

Differences in water density affect vertical mobility of ocean currents (vertical currents).

Cold Ocean Current Details
Humboldt (Peruvian) Current flows north along the western coast of South America
California Current moves southward along the western coast of North America
Antarctic Circumpolar Current flows clockwise around Antarctica, keeps warm ocean waters away from the Antarctica (Opposite direction)
Kurile (Oya shio Current) subarctic, flows south and circulates 'counterclockwise' in western North Pacific Ocean (Opposite direction and temperature)
Labrador Current flows from the Arctic Ocean to south along the coast of Labrador (Opposite direction and temperature)
Eastern Greenland Current runs south, off the eastern coast of Greenland (Opposite direction and temperature)
Canary Current part of the North Atlantic Gyre, flows southwest along N-W Africa and joins the 'Atlantic North Equatorial Current'
Benguela Current flows northward along western coast of Africa, part of South Atlantic Ocean gyre
Falkland Current flows northward along southern coast of Argentina, opposite to 'Brazil current'
Northeast Monsoon Current North Indian Ocean
Somali Current seasonal change in direction, along the coast of Somalia and Oman (Indian Ocean)
Western Australian Current flows northward parallel to the western coast of Australia
South Indian Ocean Current South Indian Ocean

Warm Ocean Current Details
North Equatorial Current flows from east to west in both "Pacific" and "Atlantic" Ocean, between 10° N and 20° N
South Equatorial Current flows from east to west in "Indian", "Pacific" and "Atlantic" Ocean, between 5° N and 20° S
Equatorial Counter Current flows west-to-east at about 3-10°N in the "Atlantic", "Indian" and "Pacific" oceans, between "north & south equatorial current"
Kuroshio Current (Black or Japan Current) begins east of the "Philippines" then flows in a north-east-ward direction past "Taiwan" and "Japan"
Tsushima Current the northeastward-flowing branch of the Kuroshio along the west coast of Japan
North Pacific Current flows west-to-east between 30 and 50 degrees north in the Pacific Ocean
Alaskan Current southwestern alongside the west coast of the North American (opposite temperature)
El Nino Current Central & East-Central Equatorial Pacific
East Australian Current southward flowing along eastern coast of Australia
Florida Current in "Caribbean Sea", from the Straits of Florida along the southeastern coast of the US, joins Gulf Stream
Gulf Stream originates in the Gulf of Mexico and follows the eastern coastlines of the United States
Norwegian Current in Barents Sea (Arctic Ocean), northeastwards along the coast of Norway (Opposite direction and temperature)
Irminger Current westward off the southwest coast of Iceland
Antilles Current branch of the Atlantic North Equatorial Current, northward east of the Antilles and joins the Florida Current
Brazilian Current flows south along the Brazilian south coast
Mozambique Current flowing south along the African east coast, between Mozambique and Madagascar
Madagascar Current split into two - North & East Current, in "west Indian Ocean" (south-east coast of Madagascar)
Agulhas Current flows south along the east coast of Africa

The North East & South West Monsoon Drift

The Indian Monsoon Current, also called Monsoon Drift are surface current of the northern Indian Ocean.

During winter, the flow of the upper ocean is directed westward from near the Indonesian Archipelago to the Arabian Sea.

During the summer, the direction reverses, with eastward flow extending from Somalia into the Bay of Bengal.

The seasonally reversing open ocean currents that pass south of India are referred to as the Winter Monsoon Current (Northeast Monsoon Current) and the Summer Monsoon Current (Southwest Monsoon Current).

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In the Indian Ocean the place of a "north equatorial current" is taken by the Monsoon Current.

There is, however, an Indian South Equatorial Current flowing westerly with the trades north of latitude 22° S, it divides to form the East Africa Coastal Current, moving northward, and a south-flowing stream.


When the water on the surface of the ocean rises and falls alternately, they are called waves.

Waves are a series of crests and troughs in the water that are formed due to the impact of wind or other forces.

An earthquake, a volcanic eruption or underwater landslides can shift large amounts of ocean water. As a result a huge tidal wave called tsunami, that may be as high as 15m is formed. The largest tsunami ever measured was 150m. high.


The alternative rise and fall of ocean water twice in a day is called a tide. It is high tide when water covers much of the shore by rising to its highest level. It is low tide when water falls to its lowest level and recedes from the shore.

Coastal areas experience two high and two low tides every 24 hours and 50 minutes because the Earth rotates through two tidal "bulges" every lunar day.

This daily pattern of two tides is caused by a combination of the the Earth's rotation and the Sun and Moon's gravitational pull.

The water of the earth closer to the moon gets pulled under the influence of the moon's gravitational force and causes high tide.

During the full moon and new moon days, the sun, the moon and the earth are in the same line and the tides are highest. These tides are called spring tides.

But when the moon is in its first and last quarter, the ocean waters get drawn in diagonally opposite directions by the gravitational pull of sun and moon resulting in low tides. These tides are called neap tides.

High tides help in navigation, they raise the water level close to the shores and helps the ships to arrive at the harbour more easily.

The high tides also help in fishing. Many more fish come closer to the shore during the high tide, enableing fishermen to get a plentiful catch.

The rise and fall of water due to tides is being used to generate electricity in some places.

High tides occur 12 hours and 25 minutes apart. It takes 6 hours and 12.5 minutes for the water at the shore to go from high to low, or from low to high.

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