It’s a typical question you’d get from a child: ‘How salty is the sea?’, and as it’s National Marine Week here in the UK it seems a good one to answer. The simple answer is that there’s around 35 g of salt in every litre of sea water, but that’s only a starting point. Oceanographers are often interested in small differences in salinity, so how else can we express this measurement? Well, a litre of water weighs a kilogram so 35 g amounts to 3.5%, but percentages are too big a unit to be useful, so we use a unit called parts per thousand (‰ or ppt). If we think of percentages as parts per hundred then it’s a straightforward conversion because 3.5% becomes 35‰ – it’s the same relationship as converting a distance in centimetres into one in millimetres. Salinity is now measured using the electrical conductivity of the water and either given as just a number (35) or with a unit called ‘practical salinity units’ (35 psu).
Another question the child might ask is ‘where does the salt come from?’. An obvious source is the rivers, but that’s not quite the whole story. If we look at the composition of seawater we find an interesting characteristic. While the salinity may vary between different locations, the dissolved chemicals that make up that salinity are found in the same proportions. It’s called the constancy of composition. The first seven major components of seawater are, in order, chloride (Cl–), sodium (Na+), sulphate (SO42-), magnesium (Mg2+), calcium (Ca2+), potassium (K+) and bicarbonate (HCO3–). If we look at typical components of river water we find much less sodium and chloride, and more calcium and bicarbonate, as well as additional dissolved substances such as silicate (SiO2). The difference between river water and sea water is even greater because much of the chloride in river water has come from the oceans via rainfall. So if the river water is the source of the salts in the ocean, why are the proportions so different?
The answer is to do with something called ‘residence time’, which is a measure of how long the element remains in the ocean before being removed. While sodium and chloride flow into the oceans in smaller amounts than other elements of river water, they stay in the ocean for longer. The residence times are also long compared to the time it takes the water to circulate through the oceans, which means that the oceans are well mixed, and this is one of the reasons we have the constancy of composition.
The proportions of the major components are constant but the total salinity can vary, and these small variations in temperature and salinity identify water masses that can be followed by oceanographers. For example, more water flows into the Mediterranean Sea than flows out. This is because a lot of water is lost through evaporation making the remaining water more salty and denser so it sinks. The straits of Gibraltar are relatively shallow compared to the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, so the salty water (called the Mediterranean water) flows out over the straits while lower salinity Atlantic water flows in at the surface.
There’s another important circulation driven by salt. As the Gulf stream crosses the Atlantic it heads north and cools. The remnants of the Gulf stream pass north of the United Kingdom as the Norwegian current. As sea ice forms the remaining water becomes very salty and sinks, forming a water mass called the North Atlantic Deep Water that flows south along the bottom of the ocean all the way to the Antarctic and drives a global pattern of ocean circulation called the thermohaline circulation.
Seawater has a more interesting story to tell than simply the answer to ‘How salty is the sea?’
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