9.2 The Gulf Stream

The primary surface current along the east coast of the United States is the Gulf Stream, which was first mapped by Benjamin Franklin in the 18th century (Figure 9.2.1). As a strong, fast current, it reduced the sailing time for ships traveling from the United States back to Europe, so sailors would use thermometers to locate its warm water and stay within the current.


Figure 9.2.1 Benjamin Franklin’s original map of the Gulf Stream (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons).

The Gulf Stream is formed from the convergence of the North Atlantic Equatorial Current bringing tropical water from the east, and the Florida Current that brings warm water from the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf Stream takes this warm water and transports it northwards along the U.S. east coast (Figure 9.2.2).  As a western boundary current, the Gulf Stream experiences western intensification (section 9.4), making the current narrow (50-100 km wide), deep (to depths of 1.5 km) and fast. With an average speed of 6.4 km/hr, and a maximum speed of about 9 km/hr, it is the fastest current in the world ocean. It also transports huge amounts of water, more than 100 times greater than the combined flow of all of the rivers on Earth.


Figure 9.2.2 Sea surface temperature map illustrating the Gulf Stream. Warmer water is shown in red, colder water in blue and violet. Meanders and eddies are visible where the current moves towards the northeast (NASA, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons).

As the Gulf Stream approaches Canada, the current becomes wider and slower as the flow dissipates and it encounters the cold Labrador Current moving in from the north. At this point, the current begins to meander, or change from a fast, straight flow to a slower, looping current (Figure 9.2.2). Often these meanders loop so much that they pinch off and form large rotating water masses called rings or eddies, that separate from the Gulf Stream. If an eddy pinches off from the north side of the Gulf Stream, it entraps a mass of warm water and moves it north into the surrounding cold water of the North Atlantic. These warm core rings are shallow, bowl-shaped water masses about 1 km deep, and about 100 km across, that rotate clockwise as they carry warm water in to the North Atlantic (Figure 9.2.3). If the meanders pinch off at the southern boundary of the Gulf Stream, they form cold core rings that rotate counterclockwise and move to the south. Cold core rings are cone-shaped water masses extending down to over 3.5 km deep, and may be over 500 km wide at the surface.

Figure 9.2.3 Formation of warm and cold core rings from meanders in the Gulf Stream. As the Gulf Stream flows to the northeast (1), it starts to meander as it slows, forming warm or cold water extensions on either side of the current (2). If the meanders pinch off the extensions, they trap pockets of warm or cold water (3), that can separate from the Gulf Stream and travel north or south. Warm core rings rotate clockwise, while cold core rings rotate counterclockwise (4) (PW).

After the Gulf Stream meets the cold Labrador Current, it joins the North Atlantic Current, which transports the warm water towards Europe, where it moderates the European climate. It is estimated that Northern Europe is up to 9o C warmer than expected because of the Gulf Stream, and the warm water helps to keep many northern European ports ice-free in the winter.

In the east, the Gulf Stream merges into the Sargasso Sea, which is the area of the ocean within the rotation center of the North Atlantic gyre. The Sargasso Sea gets its name from the large floating mats of the marine algae Sargassum that are abundant on the surface (Figure 9.2.4). These Sargassum mats may play an important role in the early life stages of sea turtles, who may live and feed within the algae for many years before reaching adulthood.


Figure 9.2.4 Map of the Sargasso Sea (left), and closeup photo of Sargassum algae (right) (Map by USFWS; photo by Bogdan Giușcă; Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons).




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Introduction to Oceanography Copyright © by Paul Webb is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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