Upwelling is a process in which currents bring deep, cold water to the surface of the ocean. Upwelling is a result of winds and the rotation of the Earth.


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Biology, Geography, Physical Geography

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Morgan Stanley

Upwelling is a process in which currents bring deep, cold water to the surface of the ocean. Upwelling is a result of winds and the rotation of the Earth.

The Earth rotates on its axis from west to east. Because of this rotation, winds tend to veer right in the northern hemisphere and left in the southern hemisphere. This is known as the Coriolis effect and is largely responsible for upwelling in coastal regions.

The Coriolis effect also causes upwelling in the open ocean near the Equator. Trade winds at the Equator blow surface water both north and south, allowing upwelling of deeper water.

The wind patterns generated during slow-moving cyclones can also blow surface water aside, causing upwelling directly beneath the eye of the cyclone. The colder water eventually helps to weaken the cyclone.

Effects of Upwelling
Biodiversity and productivity
Because the deep water brought to the surface is often rich in nutrients, coastal upwelling supports the growth of seaweed and plankton. These, in turn, provide food for fish, marine mammals, and birds.

Upwelling generates some of the world’s most fertile ecosystems. A 25,900-square-kilometer (10,000-square-mile) region off the west coast of Peru, for example, undergoes continual coastal upwelling and is among the richest fishing grounds in the world. Overall, coastal upwelling regions only cover 1 percent of the total area of the world’s oceans, but they provide about 50 percent of the fish harvest brought back to shore by the world’s fisheries.

During El Niño, a weather phenomenon that typically occurs every three to seven years, the Pacific Ocean’s climate changes dramatically. The transition zone between warm surface water and cold deep water deepens. Trade winds are also weak during El Niño. The combination of weak winds and deeper water transition zone limits upwelling. The reduction in nutrient-rich water leads to a lower fish population in the area, and therefore to a smaller fish crop.

Animal movement
Upwelling affects the movement of animal life in the area. Tiny larvae—the developing forms of many fish and invertebrates—can drift around in ocean currents for long periods of time. A strong upwelling event can wash the larvae far offshore, endangering their survival.

Coastal climate
The cold water welling up to the surface cools the air in the region. This promotes the development of sea fog. The city of San Francisco, California, is famous for its chilly, foggy summers, brought on by seasonal upwelling in the area.


Downwelling is a kind of reverse upwelling. Instead of deeper water rising up, warm surface water sinks down. Upwelling and downwelling patterns often alternate seasonally. The West Coast of the United States, for example, experiences summer upwelling and winter downwelling, as the winds change directions with the seasons.

Fast Fact

Artificial Upwelling
Scientists and businesses are working to create areas of "artificial upwelling" to pump cold water to the surface. Researchers hope artificial upwelling will increase fish crops from the Gulf of Mexico to southwest Australia.

Artificial upwelling involves complex technology using the motion of waves to bring cold, nutrient-rich water from the deep ocean to the surface. Experiments in artificial upwelling have been tried in the Pacific Ocean near the Hawaiian Islands.

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Kim Rutledge
Melissa McDaniel
Santani Teng
Hilary Hall
Tara Ramroop
Erin Sprout
Jeff Hunt
Diane Boudreau
Hilary Costa
Mary Crooks, National Geographic Society
Tim Gunther
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
Educator Reviewer
Nancy Wynne
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

January 2, 2024

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