Chapter 8: Oceans and Climate

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter you should be able to:

  • explain the concept of the heat budget of the Earth
  • explain the differences between and relative importance of radiation, conduction and phase change in exchanging heat with the atmosphere
  • explain the mechanisms and causes of the greenhouse effect and global warming
  • explain how evaporation and condensation transport heat in the atmosphere and oceans
  • explain how the curvature of the Earth results in differential heating of the surface
  • explain the role played by albedo in the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth
  • explain how and why atmospheric convection cells form
  • define and explain the Coriolis Effect
  • identify and recreate the major wind patterns on Earth
  • explain the relationship between global climatic zones and atmospheric convection cells
  • explain how seasonal and daily cycles affect things like land and sea breezes
  • explain how hurricanes form
  • explain the potential impacts of global climate change

The ultimate source of energy driving the motion of the atmosphere and the ocean is radiant energy from the sun, which falls on different parts of the Earth in differing amounts. The oceans are the recipient of most of this solar energy, and they are therefore a major factor in regulating Earth’s climate.

Remember that compared to land temperatures, ocean temperatures do not undergo large swings from day to night or seasonally. This is due to a number of factors;

  • Water has a very high heat capacity, so it can absorb a large amount of heat without much of an increase in temperature. Water can also release large amounts of heat back to the atmosphere without its temperature declining as much as land temperatures would.
  • On land, the solar energy only hits the surface, which can heat up dramatically, but the heat does not penetrate very far below the surface. In water, light penetrates for a few hundred meters, so the heat is distributed through a greater area, and water does not heat up as quickly as land.
  • Mixing of water in the top few hundred meters also distributes heat. Mixing does not happen on land.

Because of water’s ability to regulate heat exchange and climate, areas near the oceans usually have a much milder climate than regions in the center of the continents. Furthermore, areas in the Southern Hemisphere have a much more moderate climate than regions of similar latitude in the Northern Hemisphere, because a larger proportion of the Southern Hemisphere is covered by oceans.

In this chapter we will examine the ways that the oceans and atmosphere interact with solar radiation to influence wind and atmospheric circulation, local weather phenomena, and global climatic zones.






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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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