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What is a thermocline?

A thermocline is the transition layer between warmer mixed water at the ocean's surface and cooler deep water below.

illustration of the thermocline

The red line in this illustration shows a typical seawater temperature profile. In the thermocline, temperature decreases rapidly from the mixed upper layer of the ocean (called the epipelagic zone) to much colder deep water in the thermocline (mesopelagic zone). Below 3,300 feet to a depth of about 13,100 feet, water temperature remains constant. At depths below 13,100 feet, the temperature ranges from near freezing to just above the freezing point of water as depth increases.

Bodies of water are made up of layers, determined by temperature. The top surface layer is called the epipelagic zone, and is sometimes referred to as the "ocean skin" or "sunlight zone." This layer interacts with the wind and waves, which mixes the water and distributes the warmth. At the base of this layer is the thermocline. A thermocline is the transition layer between the warmer mixed water at the surface and the cooler deep water below.  It is relatively easy to tell when you have reached the thermocline in a body of water because there is a sudden change in temperature.  In the thermocline, the temperature decreases rapidly from the mixed layer temperature to the much colder deep water temperature.

In the ocean, the depth and strength of the thermocline vary from season to season and year to year. It is semi-permanent in the tropics, variable in temperate regions (often deepest during the summer), and shallow to nonexistent in the polar regions, where the water column is cold from the surface to the bottom.

Thermoclines also play a role in meteorological forecasting.  For example, hurricane forecasters must consider not just the temperature of the ocean's skin (the sea surface temperature), but also the depth of warm water above the thermocline. Water vapor evaporated from the ocean is a hurricane's primary fuel. The depth of the thermocline is the measure of the size of the "fuel tank" and helps to predict the risk of hurricane formation.

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