How Ocean Currents Work

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How ocean currents work and how to avoid it and survive in the current.

What is Ocean Currents?

The vertical or horizontal flow of both surface and deep water throughout the world’s seas is ocean currents. Currents usually flow in one direction and play an important role in the circulation of the Earth’s moisture, the weather, and water pollution.

Where are they found?

Oceanic currents may be found worldwide, and their magnitude, significance, and power vary greatly. The California and Humboldt Currents in the Pacific, the Gulf Stream and Labrador Current in the Atlantic, and the Indian Monsoon Current in the Indian Ocean are the most well-known currents. These are only a few of the seventeen main surface currents that may be found in the oceans throughout the world.

How do you identify them?

Ocean currents come in a variety of sizes and strengths, as well as different types. They might be on the surface or in the depths of the ocean. Surface currents are found in the upper 400 meters (1,300 feet) of the ocean and account for around 10% of the total water volume. 

What causes ocean currents?

Wind

The wind, which causes friction as it passes over the water, is the primary source of surface currents. The water is thus forced to travel in a spiral manner, resulting in gyres. Gyres rotate clockwise in the northern hemisphere and counterclockwise in the southern hemisphere. When winds exceed 25 miles per hour, consider kayaking another day!

Ocean’s surface

Surface currents have the fastest speed closer to the ocean’s surface and slow down to roughly 100 meters (328 feet) below the surface. 

Because surface currents travel such great distances, the Coriolis force influences their movement and deflects them, assisting in the formation of a circular pattern. Finally, because the ocean’s surface is uneven, gravity plays a role in the movement of surface currents.

Gravity

Water mounds develop when the water meets the ground, where the water is warmer, or where two currents intersect. The water is subsequently pushed down slope on the mounds by gravity, causing currents.

Deep water currents, also known as thermohaline circulation, are located below 400 meters and account for around 90% of the ocean’s surface area. Deep water currents, like surface currents, are created by gravity, but they are primarily generated by density changes in the water.

Temperature and density

Temperature and salinity influence density disparities. Warm water carries less salt than cold water, making it less thick and causing it to rise to the top, whereas cold, salt-laden water sinks. 

As the warm water rises, upwelling forces the cold water to ascend and fill the gap left by the warm. When cold water rises, it creates a gap, which is subsequently filled by rising warm water, which is pushed to descend by down welling and filling the void, resulting in the thermohaline circulation. 

Role of ocean currents

Conveyer belt

Because the circulation of warm and cold water functions like an underground river and carries water across the ocean, the thermohaline circulation is known as the Global Conveyor Belt.

 

Debris, like energy and moisture, maybe caught and transported throughout the earth by currents. This can be man-made, as in the case of garbage islands, or natural, as in the case of icebergs. The Labrador Current, which flows south from the Arctic Ocean and down the shores of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, is notorious for bringing icebergs into North Atlantic trade channels.

Navigation

Currents also play a significant influence on navigation. Knowledge of currents is vital for reducing shipping expenses and fuel consumption, in addition to avoiding debris and icebergs. Currents are now often used by shipping corporations and even sailing events to save time spent at sea.

How powerful can it go

Finally, the ocean basins and the topography of the seafloor influence both surface and deep water currents since they limit the places where water may flow and “funnel” it into another.

Rip currents are currents that flow away from the coast. They may happen at any time of year on the beach as the ocean floor is pummelling by waves, which can grow particularly large during winter storms. 

The currents can be extremely rapid or extremely sluggish, reaching up to 5mph. It may not seem like much, but when Olympic competitors average about 5mph, it’s enough to make a poor swimmer fear as they are dragged out. Eighty percent of lifeguard rescues involve swimmers caught in rip currents.

Rips are powerful currents, similar to river currents since water travels all over the place. Every beach has its unique set of currents. They’re not only perilous to swimmers, but they’re also lethal to all wave riders. 

Surfers rely on their expertise and flotation devices, like surfboards, on unpatrolled beaches. Rip currents, on the other hand, will carry everything and everyone. New routes of water will flow if maritime circumstances abruptly alter, forcing you to new regions. A rip will likely beat you if you’re weary after two hours of surfing.

[ Also Read: In case you are unsure about How Tides Work, check out our guide so that you can plan the right time to paddle. ]

What to do if you are caught in a current

The first thing to do if you’re trapped in a rip current is to stay calm. You will not be dragged underwater by a rip current. It’ll simply yank you away from the coast. Position your kayak horizontally to the current, then paddle across it. Riptides are usually less than 100 feet wide, so you should be able to paddle away from it before you get pulled too far away from shore.

If you can’t get help, remember to maintain your composure. Ride the water until it stops and you may paddle back to the shore, away from the current, and return to the beach. 

If you’re on the beach and see a family or acquaintance being swept away by a rip current, don’t try to save them. Stay on the beach. Often, the person who is assisting a drowning swimmer drowns as well. If you can, toss a floatation device their way. If you can’t, get a lifeguard’s attention. 

Look for rip currents before entering the water to avoid being trapped in one in the first place. Take a step back and get to a higher elevation to observe the water’s surface. They can range in size from two lanes of roadway to a football field. Depending on the cause, they might endure anywhere from a few minutes to several months. 

There are generally waves breaking on both sides of the rip current. Keep an eye out for what looks to be a hole in the breaking waves. Also, keep an eye out for water that is discolored. The sand is generally kicked up by the currents, causing the water to discolor.

 

Kayaking with the rip is one of the most crucial guidelines to follow. Small rips will go quicker than the normal kayaker can keep up with. When you kayak against the current, you’ll become exhausted and panicked. If you find yourself stuck in a rip current, you have four options.

[ Also Read: Our detailed guide on Kayak Paddling Techniques so you can paddle more efficiently ]

Option 1

First and foremost, remain afloat and call for assistance.

Option 2

Then, if at all feasible, kayak to the rip’s side, keeping in mind that rips might be rather narrow.

Option 3

Look for white-water and breaking waves if you still can’t get out of the rip. White-water is beneficial since it indicates that the water is shallower and that you may be able to stand up. You’ll also be able to return to shore on white-water. ‘White is pleasant, green is cruel,’ when it comes to most rips.

Option 4

Finally, if you can’t seem to get out, follow the rip out the rear until it stops. After that, you’ll be able to kayak back to the shore in a different direction.

Teach your children

Even if you’ve spent your entire life swimming at the beach, the greatest advice is not to take any chances. Teach your children to stay safe by asking a lifeguard about the current water conditions. They know all there is to know about the beach. Then make a point of swimming or kayaking near a lifeguard. I wish you many safe and enjoyable beach trips.
Read here for Safety Tips For Kayaking before you embark on your kayaking trip.

Jules and Ken

Jules and Ken

We are outdoor lovers, travellers, and writers all rolled into one. You have seen our posts here reviewing lots of different types of outdoor gear, camping equipment, RV equipment, kayaking, to cycling. Our reviews are guided by our years of experience being outdoors. We are happy to share our knowledge with you to make a better choice when you are outdoors.

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