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Outcome: Explain the effect of density on ocean circulation.
Grade level: 5-8
Theme: ocean circulation

Big Idea
Two of the most important characteristics of ocean water are its temperature and salinity. Together they help govern the density of seawater, which is a major factor controlling the ocean's vertical movements and layered circulation.

Key Concepts
Sea water has characteristic properties (e.g. density) that are independent of sample size.
There are two main factors that make ocean water more or less dense: temperature and salinity.
Cold, salty water is denser than warm, fresher water and will sink below the less dense layer.
Density is defined as the measure of a material's mass (e.g. grams) divided by its volume (e.g. milliliters).
Mixing of seawater influences the density of seawater thereby affecting ocean circulation. Seawater mixing also has an effect on ocean life.

Density is weight divided by volume. The density of fresh water is 1 gram (mass) per cubic centimeter (volume). In other words, if you had a cube with the dimensions: 1cm x 1cm x 1cm; and filled it with pure water, that cube of water would weigh 1 gram. This density is expressed as 1 g/cm3. If you dissolve salt into the water, the salt will increase the fluid's mass, while its volume will remain the same. Thus, the liquid's density will increase. (more)
Grade level: 5-8
Theme: ocean circulation

Activity 1.4: Effects of Temperature & Salinity on Density & Stratification (Steps 1- 4; p. 8). Stratification refers to the arrangement of water masses in layers according to their densities. Water density increases with depth, but not at a constant rate. In open ocean regions (with the exception of polar seas), the water column is generally characterized by three distinct layers: an upper mixed layer (a layer of warm, less-dense water with temperature constant as a function of depth), the thermocline (a region in which the temperature decreases and density increases rapidly with increasing depth), and a deep zone of dense, colder water in which density increases slowly with depth.

Stratification forms an effective barrier for the exchange of nutrients and dissolved gases between the top, illuminated surface layer where phytoplankton can thrive, and the deep, nutrientrich waters. Stratification therefore has important implications for biological and biogeochemical processes in the ocean. For example, periods of increased ocean stratification have been associated with decreases in surface phytoplankton biomass. In coastal waters, prolonged periods of stratification can lead to hypoxia (low oxygen), causing mortality of fish, crabs, and other marine organisms.

This activity compares salt and fresh water, demonstrating that fluids arrange into layers according to their densities. Students in grades 9-12 should read the Background section (p. 4-5) of Chapter 1 (Density) in preparation for this activity.

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