Relationship of the Ocean and the Atmosphere

The atmosphere affects the oceans and is in turn influenced by them. The action of winds blowing over the ocean surface creates waves and the great current systems of the oceans. When winds are strong enough to produce spray and whitecaps, tiny droplets of ocean water are thrown up into the atmosphere where some evaporate, leaving microscopic grains of salt buoyed by the turbulence of the air. These tiny particles may become nuclei for the condensation of water vapor to form fogs and clouds.

In turn, the oceans act upon the atmosphere—in ways not clearly understood—to influence and modify the world's climate and weather systems. When water evaporates, heat is removed from the oceans and stored in the atmosphere by the molecules of water vapor. When condensation occurs, this stored heat is released to the atmosphere to develop the mechanical energy of its motion. The atmosphere obtains nearly half of its energy for circulation from the condensation of evaporated ocean water.

Because the oceans have an extremely high thermal capacity when compared to the atmosphere, the ocean temperatures fluctuate seasonally much less than the atmospheric temperature. For the same reason, when air blows over the water, its temperature tends to come to the temperature of the water rather than vice versa. Thus maritime climates are generally less variable than regions in the interiors of the continents.

The relationships are not simple. The pattern of atmospheric circulation largely determines the pattern of oceanic surface circulation, which in turn determines the location and amount of heat that is released to the atmosphere. Also, the pattern of atmospheric circulation determines in part the location of clouds, which influences the locations of heating of the ocean surface.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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