All About the Ocean

All About the Ocean

The ocean covers 70 percent of Earth's surface.


9 - 12+


Biology, Earth Science, Oceanography, Geography, Physical Geography

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This article is also available in Spanish.

The ocean covers 70 percent of Earth's surface. It contains about 1.35 billion cubic kilometers (324 million cubic miles) of water, which is about 97 percent of all the water on Earth. The ocean makes all life on Earth possible, and makes the planet appear blue when viewed from space. Earth is the only planet in our solar system that is definitely known to contain liquid water.

Although the ocean is one continuous body of water, oceanographers have divided it into five principal areas: the Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, Arctic, and Southern Oceans. The Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans merge into icy waters around Antarctica.

The ocean plays a vital role in climate and weather. The sun’s heat causes water to evaporate, adding moisture to the air. The oceans provide most of this evaporated water. The water vapor condenses to form clouds, which release their moisture as rain or other kinds of precipitation. All life on Earth depends on this process, called the water cycle.

The atmosphere receives much of its heat from the ocean. As the sun warms the water, the ocean transfers heat to the atmosphere. In turn, the atmosphere distributes the heat around the globe.

Because water absorbs and loses heat more slowly than land masses, the ocean helps balance global temperatures by absorbing heat in the summer and releasing it in the winter. Without the ocean to help regulate global temperatures, Earth’s climate would be bitterly cold.

Ocean Formation
After Earth began to form about 4.6 billion years ago, it gradually separated into layers of lighter and heavier rock. The lighter rock rose and formed Earth’s crust. The heavier rock sank and formed Earth’s core and mantle.

The ocean’s water came from rocks inside the newly forming Earth. As the molten rocks cooled, they released water vapor and other gases. Eventually, the water vapor condensed and covered the crust with a primitive ocean. Today, hot gases from the Earth’s interior continue to produce new water at the bottom of the ocean.

Ocean Floor
Scientists began mapping the ocean floor in the 1920s. They used instruments called echo sounders, which measure water depths using sound waves. Echo sounders use sonar technology. Sonar is an acronym for SOund Navigation And Ranging. The sonar showed that the ocean floor has dramatic physical features, including huge mountains, deep canyons, steep cliffs, and wide plains.

The ocean’s crust is a thin layer of volcanic rock called basalt. The ocean floor is divided into several different areas. The first is the continental shelf, the nearly flat, underwater extension of a continent. Continental shelves vary in width. They are usually wide along low-lying land, and narrow along mountainous coasts.

A shelf is covered in sediment from the nearby continent. Some of the sediment is deposited by rivers and trapped by features such as natural dams. Most sediment comes from the last glacial period, or Ice Age, when the oceans receded and exposed the continental shelf. This sediment is called relict sediment.

At the outer edge of the continental shelf, the land drops off sharply in what is called the continental slope. The slope descends almost to the bottom of the ocean. Then it tapers off into a gentler slope known as the continental rise. The continental rise descends to the deep ocean floor, which is called the abyssal plain.

Abyssal plains are broad, flat areas that lie at depths of about 4,000 to 6,000 meters (13,123 to 19,680 feet). Abyssal plains cover 30 percent of the ocean floor and are the flattest feature on Earth. They are covered by fine-grained sediment like clay and silt. Pelagic sediments, the remains of small ocean organisms, also drift down from upper layers of the ocean. Scattered across abyssal plains are abyssal hills and underwater volcanic peaks called seamounts.

Rising from the abyssal plains in each major ocean is a huge chain of mostly undersea mountains. Called the mid-ocean ridge, the chain circles Earth, stretching more than 64,000 kilometers (40,000 miles). Much of the mid-ocean ridge is split by a deep central rift, or crack. Mid-ocean ridges mark the boundaries between tectonic plates. Molten rock from Earth’s interior wells up from the rift, building new seafloor in a process called seafloor spreading. A major portion of the ridge runs down the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and is known as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. It was not directly seen or explored until 1973.

Some areas of the ocean floor have deep, narrow depressions called ocean trenches. They are the deepest parts of the ocean. The deepest spot of all is the Challenger Deep, which lies in the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean near the island of Guam. Its true depth is not known, but the most accurate measurements put the Challenger Deep at 11,000 meters (36,198 feet) below the ocean’s surface—that’s more than 2,000 meters (6,000 feet) taller than Mount Everest, Earth’s highest point. The pressure in the Challenger Deep is about eight tons per square inch.

Ocean Life Zones
From the shoreline to the deepest seafloor, the ocean teems with life. The hundreds of thousands of marine species range from microscopic algae to the largest creature to have ever lived on Earth, the blue whale.

The ocean has five major life zones, each with organisms uniquely adapted to their specific marine ecosystem.

The epipelagic zone (1) is the sunlit upper layer of the ocean. It reaches from the surface to about 200 meters (660 feet) deep. The epipelagic zone is also known as the photic or euphotic zone, and can exist in lakes as well as the ocean.

The sunlight in the epipelagic zone allows photosynthesis to occur. Photosynthesis is the process by which some organisms convert sunlight and carbon dioxide into energy and oxygen. In the ocean, photosynthesis takes place in plants and algae. Plants such as seagrass are similar to land plants—they have roots, stems, and leaves. Algae is a type of aquatic organism that can photosynthesize sunlight. Large algae such as kelp are called seaweed.

Phytoplankton also live in the epipelagic zone. Phytoplankton are microscopic organisms that include plants, algae, and bacteria. They are only visible when billions of them form algal blooms, and appear as green or blue splotches in the ocean.

Phytoplankton are a basis of the ocean food web. Through photosynthesis, phytoplankton are responsible for almost half the oxygen released into Earth’s atmosphere. Animals such as krill (a type of shrimp), fish, and microscopic organisms called zooplankton all eat phytoplankton. In turn, these animals are eaten by whales, bigger fish, ocean birds, and human beings.

The next zone down, stretching to about 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) deep, is the mesopelagic zone (2). This zone is also known as the twilight zone because the light there is very dim. The lack of sunlight means there are no plants in the mesopelagic zone, but large fish and whales dive there to hunt prey. Fish in this zone are small and luminous. One of the most common is the lanternfish, which has organs along its side that produce light.

Sometimes, animals from the mesopelagic zone (such as sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) and squid) dive into the bathypelagic zone (3), which reaches to about 4,000 meters (13,100 feet) deep. The bathypelagic zone is also known as the midnight zone because no light reaches it.

Animals that live in the bathypelagic zone are small, but they often have huge mouths, sharp teeth, and expandable stomachs that let them eat any food that comes along. Most of this food comes from the remains of plants and animals drifting down from upper pelagic zones. Many bathypelagic animals do not have eyes because they are unneeded in the dark. Because the pressure is so great and it is so difficult to find nutrients, fish in the bathypelagic zone move slowly and have strong gills to extract oxygen from the water.

The water at the bottom of the ocean, the abyssopelagic zone (4), is very salty and cold (2 degrees Celsius, or 35 degrees Fahrenheit). At depths up to 6,000 meters (19,700 feet), the pressure is very strong—11,000 pounds per square inch. This makes it impossible for most animals to live. Animals in this zone have bizarre adaptations to cope with their ecosystem. Many fish have jaws that look unhinged. The jaws allow them to drag their open mouth along the seafloor to find food, such as mussels, shrimp, and microscopic organisms.

Many of the animals in this zone, including squid and fish, are bioluminescent. Bioluminescent organisms produce light through chemical reactions in their bodies. A type of angler fish, for example, has a glowing growth extending in front of its huge, toothy mouth. When smaller fish are attracted to the light, the angler fish simply snaps its jaws to eat its prey.

The deepest ocean zone, found in trenches and canyons, is called the hadalpelagic zone (5). Few organisms live here. They include tiny isopods, a type of crustacean related to crabs and shrimp.

Invertebrates such as sponges and sea cucumbers thrive in the abyssopelagic and hadalpelagic zones. Like many sea stars and jellyfish, these animals are almost entirely dependent on falling parts of dead or decaying plants and animals, called marine detritus.

Not all bottom dwellers, however, depend on marine detritus. In 1977, oceanographers discovered a community of creatures on the ocean floor that feed on bacteria around openings called hydrothermal vents. These vents discharge superheated water enriched with minerals from Earth’s interior. The minerals nourish unique bacteria, which in turn nourish creatures such as crabs, clams, and tube worms.

Ocean Currents
Currents are streams of water running through a larger body of water. Oceans, rivers, and streams have currents. The ocean’s salinity and temperature and the coast’s geographic features determine an ocean current’s behavior. Earth’s rotation and wind also influence ocean currents. Currents flowing near the surface transport heat from the tropics to the poles and move cooler water back toward the Equator. This keeps the ocean from becoming extremely hot or cold.

Deep, cold currents transport oxygen to organisms throughout the ocean. They also carry rich supplies of nutrients that all living things need. The nutrients come from plankton and the remains of other organisms that drift down and decay on the ocean floor.

Along some coasts, winds and currents produce a phenomenon called upwelling. As winds push surface water away from shore, deep currents of cold water rise to take its place. This upwelling of deep water brings up nutrients that nourish new growth of plankton, providing food for fish. Ocean food chains constantly recycle food and energy this way.

Some ocean currents are enormous and extremely powerful. One of the most powerful is the Gulf Stream, a warm surface current that originates in the tropical Caribbean Sea and flows northeast along the eastern coast of the United States. The Gulf Stream measures up to 80 kilometers (50 miles) wide and is more than a kilometer (3,281 feet) deep.

Like other ocean currents, the Gulf Stream plays a major role in climate. As the current travels north, it transfers moisture from its warm tropical waters to the air above. Westerly, or prevailing, winds carry the warm, moist air to the British Isles and to Scandinavia, causing them to have milder winters than they otherwise would experience at their northern latitudes. Northern parts of Norway are near the Arctic Circle but remain ice-free for most of the year because of the Gulf Stream.

The weather pattern known as El Niño includes a change to the Humboldt Current (also called the Peru Current) off the western coast of South America. In El Niño conditions, a current of warm surface water travels east along the Equator and prevents the normal upwelling of the cold, nutrient-rich Humboldt Current. El Niño, which can devastate the fisheries of Peru and Ecuador, occurs every two to seven years, usually in December.

The paths of ocean currents are partially determined by Earth’s rotation. This is known as the Coriolis effect. It causes large systems, such as winds and ocean currents that would normally move in a straight line, to veer to the right in the northern hemisphere and to the left in the southern hemisphere.

People and the Ocean
For thousands of years, people have depended on the ocean as a source of food and as a route for trade and exploration. Today, people continue to travel on the ocean and rely on the resources it contains.

Nations continue to negotiate how to determine the extent of their territory beyond the coast. The United Nations’ Law of the Sea treaty established exclusive economic zones (EEZs), extending 200 nautical miles (230 miles) beyond a nation’s coastline. Even though some countries have not signed or ratified the treaty (including the U.S.), it is regarded as standard.

Russia has proposed extending its EEZ beyond 200 nautical miles because two mid-ocean ridges, the Lomonosov and Medeleev Ridges, are extensions of the continental shelf belonging to Russia. This territory includes the North Pole. Russian explorers in a submersible vehicle planted a metal Russian flag on the disputed territory in 2007.

Through the centuries, people have sailed the ocean on trade routes. Today, ships still carry most of the world’s freight, particularly bulky goods such as machinery, grain, and oil.

Ocean ports are areas of commerce and culture. Water and land transportation meet there, and so do people of different professions: businesspeople who import and export goods and services; dockworkers who load and unload cargo; and ships’ crews. Ports also have a high concentration of migrants and immigrants with a wide variety of ethnicities, nationalities, languages, and religions.

Important ports in the U.S. are New York/ New Jersey and New Orleans. The busiest ports around the world include the Port of Shanghai in China and the Port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Ocean ports are also important for a nation’s armed forces. Some ports are used exclusively for military purposes, although most share space with commercial businesses. “The sun never sets on the British Empire” is a phrase used to explain the scope of the empire of Great Britain, mostly in the 19th century. Although based on the small European island nation of Great Britain, British military sea power extended its empire from Africa to the Americas, Asia, and Australia.

Scientists and other experts hope the ocean will be used more widely as a source of renewable energy. Some countries have already harnessed the energy of ocean waves, temperature, currents, or tides to power turbines and generate electricity.

One source of renewable energy are generators that are powered by tidal streams or ocean currents. They convert the movement of currents into energy. Ocean current generators have not been developed on a large scale, but are working in some places in Ireland and Norway. Some conservationists criticize the impact the large constructions have on the marine environment.

Another source of renewable energy is ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC). It uses the difference in temperature between the warm, surface water and cold, deep water to run an engine. OTEC facilities exist in places with significant differences in ocean depth: Japan, India and the U.S. state of Hawai'i, for instance.

An emerging source of renewable energy is salinity gradient power, also known as osmotic power. It is an energy source that uses the power of freshwater entering into saltwater. This technology is still being developed, but it has potential in delta areas where fresh river water is constantly interacting with the ocean.

Fishers catch more than 90 million tons of seafood each year, including more than 100 species of fish and shellfish. Millions of people, from professional fishers to business owners like restaurant owners and boat builders, depend on fisheries for their livelihood. Fishing can be classified in two ways. In subsistence fishing, fishers use their catch to help meet the nutritional needs of their families or communities. In commercial fishing, fishers sell their catch for money, goods or services. Popular subsistence and commercial fish are tuna, cod, and shrimp.

Ocean fishing is also a popular recreational sport. Sport fishing can be competitive or noncompetitive. In sport fishing tournaments, individuals or teams compete for prizes based on the size of a particular species caught in a specific time period. Both competitive and noncompetitive sport fishers need licenses to fish, and may or may not keep the caught fish. Increasingly, sport fishers practice catch-and-release fishing, where a fish is caught, measured, weighed, and often recorded on film before being released back to the ocean. Popular game fish (fish caught for sport) are tuna and marlin.

Whaling is a type of fishing that involves the harvesting of whales and dolphins. It has declined in popularity since the 19th century but is still a way of life for many cultures, such as those in Scandinavia, Japan, Canada, and the Caribbean.

The ocean offers a wealth of fishing and whaling resources, but these resources are threatened. People have harvested so much fish and marine life for food and other products that some species have disappeared.

During the 1800s and early 1900s, whalers killed thousands of whales for whale oil (wax made from boiled blubber) and ivory (whales’ teeth). Some species, including the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) and the right whale, were hunted nearly to extinction. Many species are still endangered today.

In the 1960s and 1970s, catches of important food fish, such as herring in the North Sea and anchovies in the Pacific, began to drop off dramatically. Governments took notice of overfishing—harvesting more fish than the ecosystem can replenish. Fishers were forced to go farther out to sea to find fish, putting them at risk. (Deep-sea fishing is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.) Now, they use advanced equipment, such as electronic fish finders and large gill nets or trawling nets, to catch more fish. This means there are far fewer fish to reproduce and replenish the supply.

In 1992, the collapse, or disappearance, of cod in Canada’s Newfoundland Grand Banks put 40,000 fishers out of work. A ban was placed on cod fishing, and to this day, neither the cod nor the fisheries have recovered.

To catch the dwindling numbers of fish, most fishers use trawl nets. They drag the nets along the seabed and across acres of ocean. These nets accidentally catch many small, young fish and mammals. Animals caught in fishing nets meant for other species are called bycatch. The fishing industry and fisheries management agencies argue about how to address the problem of bycatch and overfishing. Those involved in the fishing industry do not want to lose their jobs, while conservationists want to maintain healthy levels of fish in the ocean.

A number of consumers are choosing to purchase sustainable seafood. Sustainable seafood is harvested from sources (either wild or farmed) that do not deplete the natural ecosystem.

Mining and Drilling
Many minerals come from the ocean. Sea salt is a mineral that has been used as a flavoring and preservative since ancient times. Sea salt has many additional minerals, such as calcium, that ordinary table salt lacks.

Hydrothermal vents often form seafloor massive sulfide (SMS) deposits, which contain precious metals. These SMS deposits sit on the ocean floor, sometimes in the deep ocean and sometimes closer to the surface. New techniques are being developed to mine the seafloor for valuable minerals such as copper, lead, nickel, gold, and silver. Mining companies employ thousands of people and provide goods and services for millions more.

Critics of undersea mining maintain that it disrupts the local ecology. Organisms—corals, shrimp, mussels—that live on the seabed have their habitat disturbed, upsetting the food chain. In addition, destruction of habitat threatens the viability of species that have a narrow niche. Maui’s dolphin (Cephalorhynchus hectori maui), for instance, is a critically endangered species native to the waters of New Zealand’s North Island. The numbers of Maui’s dolphin are already reduced because of bycatch. Seabed mining threatens its habitat, putting it at further risk of extinction.

Oil is one of the most valuable resources taken from the ocean today. Offshore oil rigs pump petroleum from wells drilled into the continental shelf. About one-quarter of all oil and natural gas supplies now comes from offshore oil deposits around the world.

Offshore drilling requires complex engineering. An oil platform can be constructed directly onto the ocean floor, or it can “float” above an anchor. Depending on how far out on the continental shelf an oil platform is located, workers may have to be flown in. Underwater, or subsea, facilities are complicated groups of drilling equipment connected to each other and a single oil rig. Subsea production often requires remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs).

Some countries invest in offshore drilling for profit and to prevent reliance on oil from other regions. The Gulf of Mexico near the U.S. states of Texas and Louisiana is heavily drilled. Several European countries, including the United Kingdom, Denmark, and the Netherlands, drill in the North Sea. Offshore drilling is a complicated and expensive program, however. There are a limited number of companies that have the knowledge and resources to work with local governments to set up offshore oil rigs. Most of these companies are based in Europe and North America, although they do business all over the world.

Some governments have banned offshore oil drilling. They cite safety and environmental concerns. There have been several accidents where the platform itself has exploded, at the cost of many lives. Offshore drilling also poses threats to the ocean ecosystem. Spills and leaks from oil rigs and oil tankers that transport the material seriously harm marine mammals and birds. Oil coats feathers, impairing birds’ ability to maintain their body temperature and remain buoyant in the water. The fur of otters and seals are also coated, and oil entering the digestive tract of animals may damage their organs.

Offshore oil rigs also release metal cuttings, minute amounts of oil, and drilling fluid into the ocean every day. Drilling fluid is the liquid used with machinery to drill holes deep in the planet. This liquid can contain pollutants such as toxic chemicals and heavy metals.

Most oil pollution does not come from oil spills, however. It comes from the runoff of pollutants into streams and rivers that flow into the ocean. Most runoff comes from individual consumers. Cars, buses, motorcycles, and even lawn mowers spill oil and grease on roads, streets, and highways. (Runoff is what makes busy roads shiny and sometimes slippery.) Storm drains or creeks wash the runoff into local waterways, which eventually flow into the ocean.

The largest U.S. oil spill in the ocean took place in Alaska in 1989, by the tanker Exxon Valdez. The Exxon Valdez spilled at least 10 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound. In comparison, American and Canadian consumers spill about 16 million gallons of oil runoff into the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans every year.

For centuries, people have used the ocean as a dumping ground for sewage and other wastes.

In the 21st century, the wastes include not only oil, but also chemical runoff from factories and agriculture. These chemicals include nitrates and phosphates, which are often used as fertilizers. These chemicals encourage algae blooms. An algae bloom is an increase in algae and bacteria that threatens plants and other marine life. Algae blooms limit the amount of oxygen in a marine environment, leading to what are known as dead zones, where little life exists beneath the ocean’s surface. Algae blooms can spread across hundreds or even thousands of miles.

Another source of pollution is plastics. Most ocean debris, or garbage, is plastic thrown out by consumers. Plastics such as water bottles, bags, six-pack rings, and packing material put marine life at risk. Sea animals are harmed by the plastic either by getting tangled in it or by eating it.

An example of marine pollution consisting mainly of plastics is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a floating dump in the North Pacific. It’s about twice the size of Texas and probably contains about 100 million tons of debris. Most of this debris comes from the western coast of North America (the U.S. and Canada) and the eastern coast of Asia (Japan, China, Russia, North Korea, and South Korea). Because of ocean currents and weather patterns, the patch is a relatively stable formation and contains new and disintegrating debris. The smaller pieces of plastic debris are eaten by jellyfish or other organisms, and are then consumed by larger predators in the food web. These plastic chemicals may then enter a human’s diet through fish or shellfish.

Another source of pollution is carbon dioxide. The ocean absorbs most carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide, which is necessary for life, is known as a greenhouse gas and traps radiation in Earth’s atmosphere. Carbon dioxide forms many acids, called carbonic acids, in the ocean. Ocean ecosystems have adapted to the presence of certain levels of carbonic acids, but the increase in carbon dioxide has led to an increase in ocean acids. This ocean acidification erodes the shells of animals such as clams, crabs, and corals.

Global Warming
Global warming contributes to rising ocean temperatures and sea levels.

Warmer oceans radically alter the ecosystem. Global warming causes cold-water habitats to shrink, meaning there is less room for animals such as penguins, seals, or whales. Plankton, the base of the ocean food chain, thrives in cold water. Warming water means there will be less plankton available for marine life to eat.

Melting glaciers and ice sheets contribute to sea level rise. Rising sea levels threaten coastal ecosystems and property. River deltas and estuaries are put at risk for flooding. Coasts are more likely to suffer erosion. Seawater more often contaminates sources of fresh water. All these consequences—flooding, erosion, water contamination—put low-lying island nations, such as the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, at high risk for disaster.

To find ways to protect the ocean from pollution and the effects of climate change, scientists from all over the world are cooperating in studies of ocean waters and marine life. They are also working together to control pollution and limit global warming. Many countries are working to reach agreements on how to manage and harvest ocean resources.

Although the ocean is vast, it is more easily polluted and damaged than people once thought. It requires care and protection as well as expert management. Only then can it continue to provide the many resources that living things—including people—need.

Fast Fact

The Most Coast
. . . Canada has 202,080 kilometers (125,567 miles) of coastline.

Short But Sweet
. . . Monaco has four kilometers (2.5 miles) of coastline.

Fast Fact

No, the Toilet Doesn't Flush Backward in Australia
The Coriolis effect, which can be seen in large-scale phenomena like trade winds and ocean currents, cannot be duplicated in small basins like sinks.

Fast Fact

Extraterrestrial Oceans
Mars probably had oceans billions of years ago, but ice and dry seabeds are all that remain today.

Europa, one of Jupiter's moons, is probably covered by an ocean of water more than 96 kilometers (60 miles) deep, but it is trapped beneath a layer of ice, which the warmer water below frequently cracks.

One of Saturn's moons, Enceladus, has cryovolcanism, or ice volcanoes. Instead of erupting with lava, ice volcanoes erupt with water, ammonia, or methane. Ice volcanoes may indicate oceanic activity.

Fast Fact

International Oil Spill
The largest oil spill in history, the Gulf War oil spill, released at least 40 million gallons of oil into the Persian Gulf. Valves at the Sea Island oil terminal in Kuwait were opened on purpose after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1991. The oil was intended to stop a landing by U.S. Marines, but the oil drifted south to the shores of Saudi Arabia.

A study of the Gulf War oil spill (conducted by the United Nations, several countries in the Middle East and the United States) found that most of the spilled oil evaporated and caused little damage to the environment.

Fast Fact

Ocean Seas
The floors of the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea are more like the ocean than other seas they do not rest on a continent, but directly on the ocean's basalt crust.

Fast Fact

Early Ocean Explorers
Polynesian people navigated a region of the Pacific Ocean now known as the Polynesian Triangle by 700 C.E. The corners of the Polynesian Triangle are islands: the American state of Hawai'i, the country of New Zealand, and the Chilean territory of Easter Island (also known as Rapa Nui). The distance between Easter Island and New Zealand, the longest length of the Polynesian Triangle, is one-quarter of Earth's circumference, more than 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles). Polynesians successfully traveled these distances in canoes.

It would be hundreds of years before another culture explored the ocean to this extent.

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Last Updated

March 5, 2024

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