Salinity of oceans

Salinity of oceans

Salinity is defined as the ratio between the weight of the dissolved materials and the weight of the sample sea water. Generally, salinity is defined as ‘the total amount of solid material in grams contained in one kilogram of sea water and is expressed as part per thousand (%o) e.g., 30%o (means 30 grams of salt in 1000 grams of sea water).

The oceanic salinity not only affects the marine organisms and plant community but it also affects the physical properties of the oceans such as temperature, density, pressure, waves and currents etc. The freezing point of ocean water also depends on salinity e.g., more saline water freezes slowly in com­parison to less saline water.

Controlling Factors of Salinity

There is a wide range of variation in the spatial distribution of salinity within the oceans and the seas. The factors affecting the amount of salt in different oceans and seas are called as controlling factors of oceanic salinity.


There is direct positive rela­tionship between the rate of evaporation and salinity e.g., greater the evaporation, higher the salinity and vice versa. In fact, salt concentration increases with rapid rate of evaporation. Evaporation due to high temperature with low humidity (dry condition) causes more concentration of salt and overall salinity be­comes higher. For example, salinity is higher near the tropics than at the equator because both the areas record high rate of evaporation but with dry air over the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn.


Precipitation is inversely related to salinity e.g., higher the precipitation, lower the salinity and vice versa. This is why the regions of high rainfall (equato­rial zone) record comparatively lower salinity than the regions of low rainfall (sub-tropical high pressure belts).

The extra water in the temperate regions sup­plied by melt-water of ice coming from the polar areas increases the volume of water and therefore reduces salinity. It may be simply stated that the volume of water in the oceans is increased due to heavy rainfall and thus the ratio of salt to the total volume of water is reduced.

Influx of river water

Though the rivers bring salt from the land to the oceans but big and voluminous rivers pour down immense volume of water into the oceans and thus salinity is reduced at their mouths. For example, comparatively low salinity is found near the mouths of the Ganga, the Congo, the Nizer, the Ama­zon, the St. Lawrence etc.

The effect of influx of river water is more pronounced in the enclosed seas e.g. the Danube, the Dneister, the Dneiper etc. reduce the salinity in the Black Sea (180/00). Salinity is reduced to 50/00 in the Gulf of Bothnia due to influx of immense volume of water brought by the rivers. On the other hand, where evaporation exceeds the influx of fresh river waters, there is increase in salinity (Mediterra­nean Sea records 400/00).

Atmospheric pressure and wind direction

Anticyclonic conditions with stable air and high tem­perature increase salinity of the surface water of the oceans. Sub-tropical high pressure belts represent such conditions to cause high salinity. Winds also help in the redistribution of salt in the oceans and the seas as winds drive away saline water to less saline areas resulting into decrease of salinity in the former and increase in the latter.

Circulation of oceanic water

Ocean currents affect the spatial distribution of salinity by mixing seawaters. Equatorial warm currents drive away salts from the western coastal areas of the continents and accumulate them along the eastern coastal areas. The high salinity of the Mexican Gulf is partly due to this factor. The North Atlantic Drift, the extension of the Gulf Stream increases salinity along the north-western coasts of Europe. Similarly, salinity is reduced along the north-eastern coasts of N. America due to cool Labrador Current.

Distribution of Salinity

The average salinity in the oceans and the seas is 35%o but it spatially and temporally varies in differ­ent oceans, seas, and lakes. The variation in salinity is both horizontal and vertical (with depth). Salinity also varies from enclosed seas through partially closed seas to open seas.

Horizontal Distribution:  Horizontal distribution of oceanic salinity is studied in relation to latitudes but regional distribution is also considered wherein each ocean is separately described. Similarly, the pattern of spatial distribution of salinity in enclosed seas, partially enclosed seas and open seas is also considered.

On an average, salin­ity decreases from equator towards the poles. It may be mentioned that the highest salinity is seldom recorded near the equator though this zone records high tem­perature and evaporation but high rainfall reduces the relative proportion of salt. Thus, the equator accounts for only 350/00 salinity.

The highest salinity is observed between 200-400N (360/00) because this zone is charac­terized by hi0gh temperature, high evaporation but significantly low rainfall. The average salinity of 350/00 is recorded between 100-300 latitudes in the southern hemisphere. The zone between 400-600 latitudes in both the hemispheres records low salinity where it is 310/00 and 330/00 in the northern and the southern hemispheres respectively.

Salinity further decreases in the polar zones because of influx of melt-water. On an average, the northern and the southern hemispheres record average salinity of 340/00 and 350/00 respec­tively.

Vertical Distribution

No definite trend of distribution of salinity with depth can be spelt out because both the trends of increase and decrease of salinity with increasing depths have been observed. For example, salinity at the south­ern boundary of the Atlantic is 330/00 at the surface but it increases to 34.50/00 at the depth of 200 fathoms (1200 feet).

It further increases to 34.75% at the depth of 600 fathoms. On the other hand, surface salinity is 370/00 at 20°S latitude but it decreases to 350/00 at greater depth.

The following characteristics of vertical distribution of salinity may be stated:

  • Salinity increases with increasing depth in high latitudes i.e. there is positive relationship be­tween the amount of salinity and depth because of denser water below.
  • The trend of increase of salinity with increasing depths is confined to 200 fathoms from the surface in middle latitudes beyond which it decreases with increasing depths. Salinity is low at the surface at the equator due to high rainfall and transfer of water through equatorial currents but higher salinity is noted below the water surface. It again becomes low at the bottom. More studies and data of salinity distribution at regular depths in different oceans and seas are required so that definite character­istic features of vertical distribution of salinity may be determined.
  • Maximum salinity is found in the upper layer of the oceanic water. Salinity decreases with in­creasing depth. Thus, the upper zone of maxi­mum salinity and the lower zone of minimum salinity is separated by a transition zone which is called as thermocline zone, on an average above which high salinity is found while low salinity is found below this zone. It may be remembered that this should not be taken as a general rule because the vertical distribution of salinity is very complicated.
  • It may be mentioned that the depth zone of oceans between 300m and 1000m is characterized by varying trends of vertical distribution of temperature, density of seawater, and salinity of ocean water.
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