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Pacific Ocean

Physical Geography

Extent and Seas

The Pacific Ocean extends from the arctic to antarctic regions between North and South America on the east and Asia and Australia on the west. The international date line passes through it. It is connected with the Arctic Ocean by the Bering Strait; with the Atlantic Ocean by the Drake Passage, Straits of Magellan, and the Panama Canal; and with the Indian Ocean by passages in the Malay Archipelago and between Australia and Antarctica. Its maximum length is c.9,000 mi (14,500 km), and its greatest width c.11,000 mi (17,700 km), between the Isthmus of Panama and the Malay Peninsula. The principal arms of the Pacific Ocean are (in the north) the Bering Sea; (in the east) the Gulf of California; (in the south) Ross Sea; and (in the west) the Sea of Okhotsk, the Sea of Japan, and the Yellow, East China, South China, Philippine, Coral, and Tasman seas. Few large rivers drain into the Pacific Ocean; the largest are the Columbia of North America and the Huang He and Chang (Yangtze) of China.

Coastline and Islands

Along the E Pacific shore, generally, the coast rises abruptly from a deep seafloor to mountain heights on land, and there is a narrow continental shelf. The Asian coast is generally low and indented and is fringed with islands rising from a wide continental shelf. A series of volcanoes, the Circum-Pacific Ring of Fire, rims the Pacific basin.

The approximately 20,000 islands in the Pacific Ocean are concentrated in the south and west. Most of the larger islands are structurally part of the continent and rise from the continental shelf; these include the Japanese island arc, the Malay Archipelago, and the islands of NW North America and SW South America. Scattered around the Pacific and rising from the ocean floor are high volcanic islands (such as the Hawaiian Islands) and low coral islands (such as those of Oceania).

Ocean Floor

The floor of the Pacific Ocean, which has an average depth of c.14,000 ft (4,300 m), is largely a deep-sea plain. The greatest known depth (35,798.6 ft/10,911.5 m) is in the Challenger Deep in the Marianas trench c.250 mi (400 km) SW of Guam. Rising from the plain are swells (many of which are volcanic), seamounts, and guyots; the extensive Albatross Plateau covers most of the SE and E central Pacific basin.

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

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