Characteristics of Different Ocean Zones

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  • 0:00 What are Ocean Zones?
  • 0:31 The Horizontal Zones
  • 1:53 The Vertical Zones
  • 4:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lisa Roundy

Lisa has taught at all levels from kindergarten to college and has a master's degree in human relations.

The oceans can be divided into horizontal and vertical zones. These divisions help us better understand the characteristics of these vast bodies of water. Learn what these zones are in this lesson.

What Are Ocean Zones?

Our earth's oceans are vast. They cover approximately two-thirds of the surface area of our planet and extend much deeper than the height of the tallest mountain. To make understanding the oceans more manageable, scientists have organized the oceans into various zones. This lesson will look at vertical zones, or the different zones found as you move from the surface of the water to the ocean floor, and horizontal zones, the different zones found moving from shore outward.

The Horizontal Zones

Let's begin with the horizontal ocean zones that are found as you move from land out into the ocean. The first horizontal zone we will look at is the littoral zone. It may also be referred to as the coastal zone or intertidal zone. The littoral zone includes the area between high tide and low tide. During high tide, this zone is covered in ocean water for many hours. It is then exposed to the air for many hours during low tide. The organisms that live in the littoral zone have adapted to both extremes. The littoral zone encompasses a wide variety of habitats, including tide pools, beaches, and inlets.

The second horizontal zone is the pelagic zone, which includes any area from the low tide mark into the open ocean. In other words, it is the area that remains covered in water. The pelagic zone is divided into two subzones: the neretic zone and the oceanic zone. The neretic zone lies over the continental shelf, is penetrated by sunlight, and only reaches a depth of about 600 feet. Here you will find coral reefs and other costal habitats. The oceanic zone extends over deeper water past the continental shelf. Vertical zones play an important role in the oceanic zone. Habitats vary from that of the open ocean to the ocean depths.

The Vertical Zones

Now let's examine the vertical zones of the ocean. These are broken up into layers that are distinguished by the amount of light received from the sun, its depth, and the amount of pressure found in the zone. Imagine you enter a small submarine getting ready to explore the ocean. The submarine initially floats on the surface of the water. The ocean's surface, or neustic zone, is a thin film produced by surface tension. Your submarine begins its decent and submerges. You have now entered the epipelagic zone, which reaches from the surface down to about 500 feet. Together, the neustic and epipelagic zones make up the euphotic light zone, or sunlit zone. This part of the ocean is penetrated by enough sunlight for photosynthesis to occur. Plants can grow and an abundance of fish and other marine animals live in the euphotic light zone.

The environment begins to dim dramatically as your submarine drops below 500 feet. You become grateful for the protection of the submarine, since pressure increases to an amount you could not tolerate without it. This ocean zone is known as the mesopelagic zone. It reaches from 500 to 3,280 feet below the surface. It is also the disphotic light zone, or twilight zone. In this part of the ocean, a small amount of sunlight filters down, but not enough to sustain plant life. Animals that live in the disphotic light zone must be able to endure the cold, dark waters and increased pressure.

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