Boundary current

Boundary currents are ocean currents with dynamics determined by the presence of a coastline, and fall into two distinct categories: western boundary currents and eastern boundary currents.

North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone
The main ocean currents involved with the North Pacific Gyre

Eastern boundary currents

Eastern boundary currents are relatively shallow, broad and slow-flowing. They are found on the eastern side of oceanic basins (adjacent to the western coasts of continents). Subtropical eastern boundary currents flow equatorward, transporting cold water from higher latitudes to lower latitudes; examples include the Benguela Current, the Canary Current, the Humboldt Current, and the California Current. Coastal upwelling often brings nutrient-rich water into eastern boundary current regions, making them productive areas of the ocean.

Western boundary currents

The world's largest ocean gyres

Western boundary currents are warm, deep, narrow, and fast flowing currents that form on the west side of ocean basins due to western intensification. They carry warm water from the tropics poleward. Examples include the Gulf Stream, the Agulhas Current, and the Kuroshio.

Western intensification

Western intensification is the intensification of the western arm of an oceanic current, particularly a large gyre in an ocean basin. The trade winds blow westward in the tropics, and the westerlies blow eastward at mid-latitudes. This wind pattern applies a stress to the subtropical ocean surface with negative curl in the northern hemisphere and a positive curl in the southern hemisphere. The resulting Sverdrup transport is equatorward in both cases. Because of conservation of mass and potential vorticity conservation, that transport is balanced by a narrow, intense poleward current, which flows along the western boundary of the ocean basin, allowing the vorticity introduced by coastal friction to balance the vorticity input of the wind. Western intensification also occurs in the polar gyres, where the sign of the wind stress curl and the direction of the resulting currents are reversed. It is because of western intensification that the currents on the western boundary of a basin (such as the Gulf Stream, a current on the western side of the Atlantic Ocean) are stronger than those on the eastern boundary (such as the California Current, on the eastern side of the Pacific Ocean). Western intensification was first explained by the American oceanographer Henry Stommel.

In 1948, Henry Stommel published a paper in Transactions, American Geophysical Union titled "The Westward Intensification of Wind-Driven Ocean Currents",[1] in which he used a simple, homogeneous, rectangular ocean model to examine the streamlines and surface height contours for an ocean at a non-rotating frame, an ocean characterized by a constant Coriolis parameter and finally, a real-case ocean basin with a latitudinally-varying Coriolis parameter. In this simple, modeling setting, the principal factors that were accounted for influencing the oceanic circulation were surface wind stress, bottom friction, a variable surface height leading to horizontal pressure gradients, and finally, the Coriolis effect.

In his simplified model,[2] he assumed an ocean of constant density and depth in the presence of ocean currents; he also introduced a linearized, frictional term to account for the dissipative effects that prevent the real ocean from accelerating. He starts, thus, from the steady-state momentum and continuity equations:

Here is the strength of the Coriolis force, is the bottom-friction coeffecient, is gravity, and is the wind forcing. The wind is blowing towards the west at and towards the east at .

Acting on (1) with and on (2) with , subtracting, and then using (3), gives

If we introduce a Stream function and linearize by assuming that , equation (4) reduces to



The solutions of (5) with boundary condition that be constant on the coastlines, and for different values of , emphasize the role of the variation of the Coriolis parameter with latitude in inciting the strengthening of western boundary currents. Such currents are observed to be much faster, deeper, narrower and warmer than their eastern counterparts.

For a non-rotating state (zero Coriolis parameter) as well as an ocean state at which the Coriolis parameter is a constant, the ocean circulation does not demonstrate any preference toward intensification/acceleration near the western boundary. The streamlines exhibit a symmetric behavior in all directions, with the height contours demonstrating a nearly parallel relation to the streamlines, in the case of the homogeneously rotating ocean. Finally, for the case of interest - the one in which the Coriolis force is latitudinally variant - a distinct tendency for an asymmetrical streamline diagram is noted, with an observed, intense clustering toward the western part of the modeled ocean. A nice set of figures depicting the distribution of streamlines and height contours for the cases of a uniformly-rotating ocean and an ocean where the Coriolis force is linearly dependent on latitude can be found in Stommel's 1948 paper.

Sverdrup Balance and Physics of Western Intensification

The physics of western intensification can be understood through a mechanism that helps maintain the vortex balance along an ocean gyre. Harald Sverdrup was the first one, preceding Henry Stommel, to attempt to explain the mid-ocean vorticity balance by looking at the relationship between surface wind forcings and the mass transport within the upper ocean layer. He assumed a geostrophic interior flow, while neglecting any frictional or viscosity effects and presuming that the circulation vanishes at some depth in the ocean. This prohibited the application of his theory to the western boundary currents, since some form of dissipative effect (bottom Ekman layer) would be later shown to be necessary to predict a closed circulation for an entire ocean basin and to counteract the wind-driven flow.

Sverdrup introduced a potential vorticity argument to connect the net, interior flow of the oceans to the surface wind stress and the incited planetary vorticity perturbations. For instance, Ekman convergence in the sub-tropics (related to the existence of the trade winds in the tropics and the westerlies in the mid-latitudes) was suggested to lead to a downward vertical velocity and therefore, a squashing of the water columns, which subsequently forces the ocean gyre to spin more slowly (via angular momentum conservation). This is accomplished via a decrease in planetary vorticity (since relative vorticity variations are not significant in large ocean circulations), a phenomenon attainable through an equator-wardly directed, interior flow that characterizes the subtropical gyre.[3] The opposite is applicable when Ekman divergence is induced, leading to Ekman absorption (suction) and a subsequent, water column stretching and poleward return flow, a characteristic of sub-polar gyres.

This return flow, as shown by Stommel,[1] occurs in a meridional current, concentrated near the western boundary of an ocean basin. To balance the vorticity source induced by the wind stress forcing, Stommel introduced a linear frictional term in the Sverdrup equation, functioning as the vorticity sink. This bottom ocean, frictional drag on the horizontal flow allowed Stommel to theoretically predict a closed, basin-wide circulation, while demonstrating the west-ward intensification of wind-driven gyres and its attribution to the Coriolis variation with latitude (beta effect). Walter Munk (1950) further implemented Stommel's theory of western intensification by using a more realistic frictional term, while emphasizing "the lateral dissipation of eddy energy."[4] In this way, not only did he reproduce Stommel's results, recreating thus the circulation of a western boundary current of an ocean gyre resembling the Gulf stream, but he also showed that sub-polar gyres should develop northward of the subtropical ones, spinning in the opposite direction.

See also


  • Thurman, Harold V., Trujillo, Alan P. Introductory Oceanography Tenth Edition. ISBN 0-13-143888-3
  • AMS glossary
  • Professor Raphael Kudela, UCSC, lectures OCEA1 Fall 2007
  • H. Stommel, The Westward Intensification of Wind-Driven Ocean Currents, Transactions American Geophysical Union: Vol. 29, 1948
  • Munk, W. H., On the wind-driven ocean circulation, J. Meteorol., Vol. 7,1950
  • Stewart, R. "11". Wind Driven Ocean Circulation.
  • John H. Steele; et al. Ocean Currents: A Derivative of the Encyclopedia of Ocean Sciences.
  • Sverdrup, Harald (1947). "Wind-Driven Currents in a Baroclinic Ocean; with Application to the Equatorial Currents of the Eastern Pacific". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. JSTOR 87657. Missing or empty |url= (help)


  1. ^ a b Stommel, Henry (April 1948). "The Westward Intensification of Wind-Driven Ocean Currents" (PDF). Transactions, American Geophysical Union. 29 (2): 202–206. doi:10.1029/tr029i002p00202. Retrieved 27 August 2012.
  2. ^ H. Stommel, The Westward Intensification of Wind-Driven Ocean Currents, Transactions American Geophysical Union: Vol. 29, 1948
  3. ^ Lynne D Talley; et al. Descriptive Physical Oceanography.
  4. ^ Berger, Wolfgang H.; Noble Shor, Elizabeth. Ocean: reflections on a century of exploration.

External links

Agulhas Current

The Agulhas Current is the western boundary current of the southwest Indian Ocean. It flows down the east coast of Africa from 27°S to 40°S. It is narrow, swift and strong. It is suggested that it is the largest western boundary current in the world ocean, with an estimated net transport of 70 Sverdrups (Sv, millions m3/s), as western boundary currents at comparable latitudes transport less — Brazil Current (16.2 Sv), Gulf Stream (34 Sv), Kuroshio (42 Sv).

California Current

The California Current is a Pacific Ocean current that moves southward along the western coast of North America, beginning off southern British Columbia and ending off southern Baja California Peninsula. It is considered an Eastern boundary current due to the influence of the North American coastline on its course. It is also one of five major coastal currents affiliated with strong upwelling zones, the others being the Humboldt Current, the Canary Current, the Benguela Current, and the Somali Current. The California Current is part of the North Pacific Gyre, a large swirling current that occupies the northern basin of the Pacific.

Canary Current

The Canary Current is a wind-driven surface current that is part of the North Atlantic Gyre. This eastern boundary current branches south from the North Atlantic Current and flows southwest about as far as Senegal where it turns west and later joins the Atlantic North Equatorial Current. The current is named after the Canary Islands. The archipelago partially blocks the flow of the Canary Current (Gyory, 2007).

This wide and slow moving current is thought to have been exploited in the early Phoenician navigation and settlement along the coast of western Morocco. The ancient Phoenicians not only exploited numerous fisheries within this current zone, but also established a factory at Iles Purpuraires off present day Essaouira for extracting a Tyrian purple dye from a marine gastropod murex species.

Current (fluid)

A current in a fluid is the magnitude and direction of flow within that fluid. An air current presents the same properties specifically for a gaseous medium.

Types of fluid currents include

Boundary current

Current (stream), a current in a river or stream

Longshore current

Ocean current

Rip current

Rip tide

Subsurface currents

Turbidity current

East Australian Current

The East Australian Current (EAC) is the southward western boundary current that is formed from the South Equatorial Current (SEC) crossing the Coral Sea and reaching the eastern coast of Australia. At around 15° S near the Australian coast the SEC divides forming the southward flow of the EAC. It is the largest ocean current close to the shores of Australia. The EAC reaches a maximum velocity at 30° S where its flow can reach 90 cm/s. As it flows southward it splits from the coast at around 31° to 32° S. By the time it reaches 33° S it begins to undergo a southward meander while another portion of the transport turns back northward in a tight recirculation. At this location the EAC reaches its maximum transport of nearly 35 Sv (35 billion liters per second). The majority of the EAC flow that does not recirculate will move eastward into the Tasman Front crossing the Tasman Sea just north of the cape of New Zealand. The remaining will flow south on the EAC Extension until it reaches the Antarctic Circumpolar Current. The Tasman Front transport is estimated at 13 Sv. The eastward movement of the EAC through the Tasman Front and reattaching to the coastline of New Zealand forms the East Auckland Current. The EAC also acts to transport tropical marine fauna to habitats in sub-tropical regions along the south east Australian coast.

East Madagascar Current

The East Madagascar Current is an oceanic flow feature near Madagascar. It flows southward from 20°S on the east side of Madagascar to the southern limit at Cape Saint Marie and subsequently feeds the Agulhas Current. Its flow is complicated by large cyclonic and anticyclonic eddies.

The East Madagascar Current has a controlling role in the western boundary current of the southwest Indian Ocean together with the Mozambique Current. The mean speed of the East Madagascar Current varies between 0.2–0–9 m/s (0.66–0.00–29.53 ft/s) with a peak in spring and the lowest point in summer. It creates a high-pressure area and affects the Indian Monsoon.The East Madagascar Current is intense and narrow and retroflects into the central Indian Ocean south of Madagascar similarly to the Agulhas Current south of South Africa.

Gulf Stream

The Gulf Stream, together with its northern extension the North Atlantic Drift, is a warm and swift Atlantic ocean current that originates in the Gulf of Mexico and stretches to the tip of Florida, and follows the eastern coastlines of the United States and Newfoundland before crossing the Atlantic Ocean. The process of western intensification causes the Gulf Stream to be a northward accelerating current off the east coast of North America. At about 40°0′N 30°0′W, it splits in two, with the northern stream, the North Atlantic Drift, crossing to Northern Europe and the southern stream, the Canary Current, recirculating off West Africa.

The Gulf Stream influences the climate of the east coast of North America from Florida to Newfoundland, and the west coast of Europe. Although there has been recent debate, there is consensus that the climate of Western Europe and Northern Europe is warmer than it would otherwise be due to the North Atlantic drift which is the northeastern section of the Gulf Stream. It is part of the North Atlantic Gyre. Its presence has led to the development of strong cyclones of all types, both within the atmosphere and within the ocean. The Gulf Stream is also a significant potential source of renewable power generation.The Gulf Stream is typically 100 kilometres (62 mi) wide and 800 metres (2,600 ft) to 1,200 metres (3,900 ft) deep. The current velocity is fastest near the surface, with the maximum speed typically about 2.5 metres per second (9.0 km/h; 5.6 mph).

Humboldt Current

The Humboldt Current, also called the Peru Current, is a cold, low-salinity ocean current that flows north along the western coast of South America. It is an eastern boundary current flowing in the direction of the equator, and extends 500–1,000 km (310–620 mi) offshore. The Humboldt Current is named after the Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. In 1846, von Humboldt reported measurements of the cold-water current in his book Cosmos.The current extends from southern Chile (~45th parallel south) to northern Peru (~4th parallel south) where cold, upwelled, waters intersect warm tropical waters to form the Equatorial Front. Sea surface temperatures off the coast of Peru, around 5th parallel south, reach temperatures as low as 16 °C (61 °F). This is highly uncharacteristic of tropical waters, as most other regions have temperatures measuring above 25 °C (77 °F). Upwelling brings nutrients to the surface, which support phytoplankton and ultimately increase biological productivity.The Humboldt Current is a highly productive ecosystem. It is the most productive eastern boundary current system. It accounts for roughly 18-20% of the total worldwide marine fish catch. The species are mostly pelagic: sardines, anchovies and jack mackerel. The system's high productivity supports other important fishery resources as well as marine mammals (eared seals and cetaceans) and seabirds. Periodically, the upwelling that drives the system's productivity is disrupted by the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) event, often with large social and economical impacts.

The Humboldt has a considerable cooling influence on the climate of Chile, Peru and Ecuador. It is also largely responsible for the aridity of Atacama Desert in northern Chile and coastal areas of Peru and also of the aridity of southern Ecuador. Marine air is cooled by the current and thus is not conducive to generating precipitation (although clouds and fog are produced).

Kuroshio Current

The Kuroshio (黒潮), also known as the Black or Japan Current (日本海流, Nihon Kairyū) or the Black Stream, is a north-flowing ocean current on the west side of the North Pacific Ocean. It is similar to the Gulf Stream in the North Atlantic and is part of the North Pacific ocean gyre. Like the Gulf stream, it is a strong western boundary current.

Loop Current

A parent to the Florida Current, the Loop Current is a warm ocean current that flows northward between Cuba and the Yucatán Peninsula, moves north into the Gulf of Mexico, loops east and south before exiting to the east through the Florida Straits and joining the Gulf Stream. The Loop Current is an extension of the western boundary current of the North Atlantic subtropical gyre. Serving as the dominant circulation feature in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico, the Loop Currents transports between 23 and 27 sverdrups and reaches maximum flow speeds of from 1.5 to 1.8 meters/second.A related feature is an area of warm water with an "eddy" or "Loop Current ring" that separates from the Loop Current, somewhat randomly every 3 to 17 months. Swirling at 1.8 to 2 meters/second, these rings drift to the west at speeds of 2 to 5 kilometers/day and have a lifespan of up to a year before they bump into the coast of Texas or Mexico. These eddies are composed of warm Caribbean waters and possess physical properties that isolate the masses from surrounding Gulf Common Waters. The rings can measure 200 to 400 kilometers in diameter and extend down to a depth of 1000 meters.

Mozambique Current

The Mozambique Current is an ocean current in the Indian Ocean, usually defined as warm surface waters flowing south along the African east coast in the Mozambique Channel, between Mozambique and the island of Madagascar.

The classical definition of the Mozambique Current is that it is a strong, steady, western boundary current. Modern research has challenged that assumption, and indicates that rather than a strong western boundary current, there are often a series of large anti-cyclonic eddies in the channel. Direct evidence for these eddies has been found in satellite altimetry data

, ship borne surveys

, and moored current meter records


These same current meter records, that were over two years in length, failed to show a strong, consistent current along the Mozambican coast, largely dispelling the notion of a steady Mozambique Current. Nonetheless, it is impossible to rule out the possibility that the Mozambique Current may appear intermittently, for short durations. Indeed, numerical model simulations in the Mozambique Channel show the appearance of a current on the Mozambican Coast, during periods between eddies.

North Atlantic Current

The North Atlantic Current (NAC), also known as North Atlantic Drift and North Atlantic Sea Movement, is a powerful warm western boundary current within the Atlantic Ocean that extends the Gulf Stream northeastward.The NAC originates from where the Gulf Stream turns north at the Southeast Newfoundland Rise, a submarine ridge that stretches southeast from the Grand Banks. The NAC flows northward east of the Grand Banks, from 40°N to 51°N, before turning sharply east to cross the Atlantic. It transports more warm tropical water to northern latitudes than any other boundary current; more than 40 Sv in the south and 20 Sv as it crosses the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. It reaches speeds of 2 knots near the North American coast. Directed by topography, the NAC meanders heavily, but in contrast to the meanders of the Gulf Stream, the NAC meanders remain stable without breaking off into eddies.The colder parts of the Gulf Stream turn northward near the "tail" of the Grand Banks at 50°W where the Azores Current branches off to flow south of the Azores. From there the NAC flows northeastward, east of the Flemish Cap (47°N, 45°W). Approaching the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, it then turns eastward and becomes much broader and more diffuse. It then splits into a colder northeastern branch and a warmer eastern branch. As the warmer branch turns southward, most of the subtropical component of the Gulf Stream is diverted southward, and as a consequence, the North Atlantic is mostly supplied by subpolar waters, including a contribution from the Labrador Current recirculated into the NAC at 45°N.West of Continental Europe, it splits into two major branches. One branch goes southeast, becoming the Canary Current as it passes northwest Africa and turns southwest. The other major branch continues north along the coast of Northwestern Europe.

Other branches include the Irminger Current and the Norwegian Current. Driven by the global thermohaline circulation, the North Atlantic Current is part of the wind-driven Gulf Stream, which goes further east and north from the North American coast across the Atlantic and into the Arctic Ocean.

The North Atlantic Current, together with the Gulf Stream, have a long-lived reputation for having a considerable warming influence on European climate. However, the principal cause for differences in winter climate between North America and Europe seems to be winds rather than ocean currents (although the currents do exert influence at very high latitudes by preventing the formation of sea ice).

North Pacific Gyre

The North Pacific Gyre (NPG) or North Pacific Subtropical Gyre (NPSG), located in the northern Pacific Ocean, is one of the five major oceanic gyres. This gyre covers most of the northern Pacific Ocean. It is the largest ecosystem on Earth, located between the equator and 50° N latitude, and comprising 20 million square kilometers.

The gyre has a clockwise circular pattern and is formed by four prevailing ocean currents: the North Pacific Current to the north, the California Current to the east, the North Equatorial Current to the south, and the Kuroshio Current to the west. It is the site of an unusually intense collection of man-made marine debris, known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The North Pacific Subtropical Gyre and the much smaller North Pacific Subpolar Gyre make up the two major gyre systems in the mid-latitudes of the Northern Pacific Ocean. This two-gyre circulation in the North Pacific is driven by the trade and westerly winds. This is one of the best examples of all of Earth’s oceans where these winds drive a two-gyre circulation. Physical characteristics like weak thermohaline circulation in the North Pacific and it is mostly blocked by land in the north, also help facilitate this circulation. As depth increases, these gyres in the North Pacific grow smaller and weaker, and the high pressure at the center of the Subtropical Gyre will migrate poleward and westward.

Ocean gyre

In oceanography, a gyre () is any large system of circulating ocean currents, particularly those involved with large wind movements. Gyres are caused by the Coriolis effect; planetary vorticity along with horizontal and vertical friction, determine the circulation patterns from the wind stress curl (torque).The term gyre can be used to refer to any type of vortex in an atmosphere or a sea, even one that is man-made, but it is most commonly used in terrestrial oceanography to refer to the major ocean systems.

Somali Current

The Somali Current is a cold ocean boundary current that runs along the coast of Somalia and Oman in the Western Indian Ocean and is analogous to the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic Ocean. This current is heavily influenced by the monsoons and is the only major upwelling system that occurs on a western boundary of an ocean. The water that is upwelled by the current merges with another upwelling system, creating one of the most productive ecosystems in the ocean.The Somali current is characterized by seasonal changes influenced by the Southwest monsoon and the Northeast Monsoon. During the months of June to September, the warm Southwest monsoon moves the coastal waters northeastward, creating coastal upwelling. The upwelled water is carried offshore by Ekman transport and merges with water that was brought to the surface by open-ocean upwelling. The Findlater jet, a narrow low-level, atmospheric jet, also develops during the Southwest monsoon, and blows diagonally across the Indian Ocean, parallel to the coasts of Somalia and Oman. As a result, an Ekman transport is created to the right of the wind. At the center of the jet, the transport is maximum and decreases to the right and left with increasing distance. To the left of the jet center, there is less water movement toward the center than is leaving, creating a divergence in the upper layer and resulting in an upwelling event (Ekman suction). In contrast, to the right of the center of the jet, more water is coming from the center than is leaving, creating a downwelling event (Ekman pumping). This open-ocean upwelling in combination with the coastal upwelling cause a massive upwelling. The Northeast monsoon, which occurs from December to February, causes a reversal of the Somalia current, moving the coastal waters southwest. Cooler air causes the surface water to cool and creates deep mixing, bringing abundant nutrients to the surface.

South Atlantic Gyre

The South Atlantic Gyre is the subtropical gyre in the south Atlantic Ocean. In the southern portion of the gyre, northwesterly (or southeastward-flowing) winds drive eastward-flowing currents that are difficult to distinguish from the northern boundary of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current. Like other oceanic gyres, it collects vast amounts of floating debris.

South Equatorial Current

The South Equatorial Current are ocean currents in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Ocean that flow east-to-west between the equator and about 20 degrees south. In the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, it extends across the equator to about 5 degrees north.

Within the southern hemisphere, the South Equatorial Current is the westward limb of the very large-scale subtropical gyres. These gyres are driven by the combination of trade winds in the tropics and westerly winds that are found south of about 30 degrees south, through a rather complicated process that includes western boundary current intensification.

On the equator, the South Equatorial Current is driven directly by the trade winds which blow from east to west.

In the Indian Ocean, the westward-flowing South Equatorial Current is well-developed only south of the equator. Directly on the equator, the winds reverse twice a year due to the monsoons, and so the surface current can be either eastward or westward.

Sverdrup balance

The Sverdrup balance, or Sverdrup relation, is a theoretical relationship between the wind stress exerted on the surface of the open ocean and the vertically integrated meridional (north-south) transport of ocean water.


Upwelling is an oceanographic phenomenon that involves wind-driven motion of dense, cooler, and usually nutrient-rich water towards the ocean surface, replacing the warmer, usually nutrient-depleted surface water. The nutrient-rich upwelled water stimulates the growth and reproduction of primary producers such as phytoplankton. Due to the biomass of phytoplankton and presence of cool water in these regions, upwelling zones can be identified by cool sea surface temperatures (SST) and high concentrations of chlorophyll-a.The increased availability of nutrients in upwelling regions results in high levels of primary production and thus fishery production. Approximately 25% of the total global marine fish catches come from five upwellings that occupy only 5% of the total ocean area. Upwellings that are driven by coastal currents or diverging open ocean have the greatest impact on nutrient-enriched waters and global fishery yields.

Ocean zones
Sea level


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