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Why does the ocean get colder at depth?

28 July 2010, 1:46 pm

ocean conveyor belt map

Cold water has a higher density than warm water. Deep water gets colder at depth because cold, salty ocean water sinks to the bottom of the ocean basins. Less dense, warmer water rises to the surface. This process of rising and sinking water creates a complex pattern of ocean circulation called the 'global conveyor belt.'

In contrast, the Earth gets hotter and hotter at depth primarily because the energy of radioactive decay is leaking outwards from the core of the planet. While this geothermal energy is transferred to ocean water along the sea floor, the effect is so small that it's immeasurable by direct means.

Why? The actual amount of heat generated per square meter of Earth is quite small, especially compared to the amount of heat necessary to warm the ocean. Geothermal energy emanating from the Earth averages only about one tenth of a watt per square meter. At that rate of heat flow (without taking ocean currents into account), it would take well over a year just to heat the bottom meter of the ocean by one degree Centigrade.

However, the ocean is not standing still. Complex deep ocean currents driven by density variations in temperature and salinity are constantly replacing the bottom layer of ocean water with colder water.

For more information:
What is a current?
What is the global ocean conveyor belt?
Ocean Conveyor Belt, NOAA Science on A Sphere

Original article: Why does the ocean get colder at depth?