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.


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Earth Science, Meteorology, Oceanography

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Ocean currents are continuously flowing movements of water. They can be on the ocean's surface or underwater. One major ocean current is the Gulf Stream. It transports enormous amounts of warm water from the Gulf of Mexico into the seas of Western Europe, warming the coasts of Western European countries.

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

Oceanographers are scientists who study the seas, including their circulation. Some of these scientists work to develop and improve computer programs known as models that represent, or simulate, something that can or could take place in the real world. Given the complexity of the oceanic environment, computer models are important tools for scientists trying to explore the ocean's deepest secrets.

Ocean Behavior Is Predicted with Math Models

Computer models of the ocean use calculations to solve complex mathematical equations that model ocean currents. These calculations represent the behaviors of a complicated system such as the ocean. For example, traits of the ocean system, such as temperature and salinity, or the levels of salt, are constantly changing.

The models seek to answer various questions. For example, how are ocean temperatures related to local weather? How does the ocean help control the global climate? These are just a couple of the questions that ocean circulation models can help address.

The ocean is a very difficult system to model. For this reason, scientists must consider many features. These include the shape of coastlines, the shape of the ocean floor, water depth, and temperature. The models also include energy received from the sun and wind. As more data becomes available, scientists add this new data into their models. This helps improve models, making them more accurate.

With an ocean model, scientists can work to better understand the ocean as part of a larger complex system. The system involves the climate and Earth's atmosphere. This is the layer of gasses around a planet. These kinds of models are essential for predictions of how natural changes and human-caused changes will influence climate and life on Earth.

Oceanographers Have Studied the Seas for Decades

Oceanography is the field of science that studies the properties and features of the ocean. In the early 19th century, scientists did not know much about the circulation of the ocean, and it took oceanographers a century to trace the general patterns of ocean circulation.

In the 1940s, oceanographers began to describe ocean circulation in detail. They described how cold, heavy water sinks near Iceland and Greenland and then flows south. In the 1950s, radioactive waste from atomic-bomb tests and other industrial particles first appeared in the ocean. These particles helped oceanographers track currents more accurately.

This work paved the way for the earliest ocean circulation models. Since the 1960s, Earth scientists and computer scientists worked together to improve ocean models. The United States government began contributing to research in the field, and in the late 1960s, scientists produced the first ocean circulation models, including the first one simulating the entire ocean.

In the decades after, shifting weather patterns as a result of climate change, became a growing concern. Scientists knew the ocean was the major stabilizer of global climate. They looked to developing models that would help explain the complex physical, biological, and chemical processes going on in the ocean and how it affects the planet.

Much of the Ocean Remains a Mystery

Computer power improved in the 1980s and 1990s. Supercomputers became available. Scientists gathered more ocean data from satellites, research ships, and floating sensors. These advances helped scientists develop models with more realistic oceanic features.

Even today, much of the ocean remains a mystery. We have better maps of the moon and Mars than we do of the ocean floor.

Ocean models give different outcomes based on the data that is fed into them. Nonetheless, scientists work hard to make the models match the real world. Computer models may be limited, but they are a necessary 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
Last Updated

June 2, 2022

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