Simulating the Global Ocean

Simulating the Global Ocean

Complex equations representing the physical, biological, and chemical properties of the ocean make up the computer models oceanographers use to learn how massive amounts of ocean water move and influence the rest of the world.


3 - 12


Earth Science, Meteorology, Oceanography

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The Gulf Stream is an ocean current. A current is the flowing movement of water. Currents are found on the ocean's surface. They can also be underwater.

The Gulf Stream moves warm water from the Gulf of Mexico. The water moves into the seas of Europe. This warms the coast of Western European countries such as Ireland.

The ocean has many major currents like the Gulf Stream. These currents affect weather. They affect life all over the world. The worldwide movement of these currents in the ocean is called ocean circulation.

Scientists study these currents. They make computer programs to study them. They model how currents move around Earth.

The Ocean Is always Changing

The ocean is complicated. It is always changing. Scientists need computer models to understand how it works.

Scientists must think about everything that happens in the ocean. They ask many questions. What is the shape of the coast? What is the shape of the ocean floor? What is the water temperature? How deep is the water? How much heat does the water get from the sun? How does the spinning Earth move the water? How does wind affect the water?

Scientists also have to think about the atmosphere. The atmosphere is the blanket of gases that covers the planet. The ocean is connected to the atmosphere. The ocean moves heat around the planet. It helps keep the climate stable. Climate is the condition in the atmosphere over a long time. It is like the average of weather conditions over time.

Ocean models include both the ocean and atmosphere. They will help tell how the climate will change. The models help explain how ocean temperatures affect weather and Earth's climate.

Oceanographers Study the Sea

Oceanography is a field of science. It deals with the properties of the ocean. Scientists who study the ocean are called oceanographers. In the early 1800s, scientists did not know much about ocean circulation. It took them about a hundred years to trace the patterns of ocean circulation.

In the 1940s, scientists began to describe ocean circulation in detail. Then in the 1960s, oceanographers made the first model of how ocean water moves around the world. Scientists became more worried about climate change. They wanted to make even better models of how ocean water moves. But they needed computers that did not exist then.

Computers improved in the 1980s and 1990s. Scientists learned more about the ocean from satellites. They also learned more from ships and instruments that float in the sea. These all helped scientists make models that better matched the real ocean.

Ocean models give different answers based on the data that is put into them. But scientists work hard to make the models match the real world. Computer models are limited. But they are a great tool for studying the ocean.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Roza Kavak
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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