Oceanic & General Atmospheric Circulation

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  • 0:01 A Fluid Planet
  • 0:27 The Coriolis Effect
  • 1:07 Rising and Sinking
  • 3:09 Land
  • 4:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Meredith Mikell
The movement of air and water across the planet is the driving force of climate and weather patterns. There are many factors that affect ocean and atmospheric circulation, and here we will explore what they are and how they function. At the end, you can test your knowledge with a brief quiz.

A Fluid Planet

The Earth's surface is covered with fluids, namely air and water. These fluids are separated by density, with the dense, cold waters making up the bottom, and the thinnest, lightest air masses making up the top of the atmosphere, where air meets space. The movement of air and water across the planet is known as circulation and has many different variables driving it.

The Coriolis Effect

Because Earth is a spinning ball, the gases that make up the atmosphere and the water that makes up the oceans are forced into motion. As Earth rotates to the east, the air sitting on top of it is pulled along, but more slowly than the planet itself.

This means that air seems to be moving westward along the Equator and then changes direction in different latitudes to the north and the south. This deflection of air due to Earth's rotation is called the Coriolis effect. The Coriolis effect also applies to ocean surface currents, which deflect in the same manner along the Equator, creating surface currents moving westward.

Rising and Sinking

Air and water do not just move laterally. Because of differences in temperature among the fluids, air and water masses also rise and sink vertically. If you have ever used a convection oven, you have witnessed the process of hot air rising and cool air sinking. This happens in Earth's atmosphere and in the oceans: warm fluids rise; cool fluids sink. Vertical air movement combined with lateral movement makes up cells of circulating air, known for bringing consistent wind patterns in various parts of the world.

This rising and sinking is not just about the temperature - the composition of the fluids also affects their densities. Sea water salinity is a measure of the amount of dissolved particles, or the 'saltiness', of the water. The higher the salinity, the denser the water becomes. So, the densest water on Earth is very cold and very salty. Water moves vertically in a process called thermohaline circulation, a system of currents driven by changes in temperature ('thermo') and salinity ('haline').

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