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How Does Life Work?

Biosphere Process


The Marriage of Wind and Water:
Atmosphere and Ocean Currents

Water and Wind work together in this lively biosphere. As we saw when we looked at the rock cycle, the water cycle and the winds work together to dissolve the continents' rock and carry life-materials to the ocean. The sun's infra-red (heat) radiation powers the water cycle and powers the worldwide winds. That solar heating in turn drives the ocean currents; the winds play a vital role in mixing waters of differing temperatures. The ocean currents have a huge impact on human lives. If it were not for the warm ocean Gulf Current that crosses the Atlantic, Europe would be so cold it would be almost uninhabitable. 

Recently, we have been able to observe earthwide winds from weather satellites in orbit above us.

When we observe the winds by watching clouds, we are watching water vapor circulate around the earth.

Meteorologists translate the satellite information into weather maps like this, below.

Part of North America's weather one day

There is also an earthwide system for observing the ocean. Part of that is done by satellite, part is done by "drifters", large free-floating buoys which radio their locations and the water temperature back to ocean scientists. There were 778 drifters operating when this map was made in 1997. Several countries cooperate in the drifter research.

Each red dot represents a drifter's location. 

By looking at the height of waves, oceanographers also study the combination of wind and water that mixes waters of different temperatures.

Wave height and direction worldwide

From all these sources of information, oceanographers chart the vast currents that circulate ocean waters around the globe.

Worldwide ocean currents for two days

One of the most crucial  outcomes of the marriage of wind and water is Upwelling.
Upwelling is the uplift of water all along continental shelves. This means that cold, nutrient-rich water comes to the surface of the ocean for up to 200 miles out from land. Upwelling is the result of coriolis winds. These are winds created by the Earth's daily rotation. The coriolis winds push the surface waters away from the coasts. This pulls colder water up and mixes more nutrients into the water there, and eventually into most of the ocean. These nutrients support the whole oceanic food chain, beginning with floating planktron.

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