Wind Driven Surface Currents: Equatorial Currents Background

Patterns of




Ocean in

Currents and








Upwelling and



global circulation illustration and QuikSCAT images depicting wind speeds for atlantic and pacific oceans QuikSCAT wind speeds for Pacific Ocean QuikSCAT wind speeds for Atlantic Ocean
Credit: Dr. Pamela J. W. Gore, Georgia Perimeter College & JPL Winds Click to Enlarge QuikSCAT Image Click to Enlarge QuikSCAT Image

The tropical ocean encompasses broad areas of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Ocean basins and is closely linked to the tropical atmosphere. The prevailing surface winds over the tropical ocean are the trade winds that blow persistently from the northeast (toward the southwest) in the Northern Hemisphere and from the southeast (toward the northwest) in the Southern Hemisphere. The name for these winds was coined by sea captains who sailed for trading companies and took advantage of their persistent speed and direction when crossing the ocean. Trade winds drive both North and South Equatorial Currents westward, thus transporting warm ocean-surface waters in that direction. Equatorial Counter Currents and Equatorial Under Currents return some warm waters eastward. Counter Currents flow along the surface whereas Under Currents flow at greater depths below the surface.

The trade winds of the two hemispheres converge in a narrow east-west zone located near the equator known as the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ). The ITCZ is an important component of the planetary-scale atmospheric circulation that is particularly well defined over the tropical ocean. Warm and humid air ascending in the ITCZ gives rise to clusters of showers and thunderstorms that produce locally heavy rainfall. For mariners the region of the tropical ocean near the equator is known as the doldrums, feared by the captains of sailing ships because of light and variable winds. Seasonally, the ITCZ moves with the sun, shifting northward during the Northern Hemisphere spring and southward during the Northern Hemisphere autumn but generally remaining north of the equator, especially over the Atlantic Ocean. Consequently, the eastward-flowing Equatorial Counter Current, separating the surface current systems of the two hemispheres, also lies mostly just north of the equator.

The South Equatorial Current crosses the equator in the Atlantic and to a lesser extent in the Pacific. In this way, it transports surface waters and heat into the Northern Hemisphere. The return flow is through subsurface currents (discussed later). The cape at the easternmost point of South America diverts part of the flow of the South Equatorial Current into the southward flowing Brazil Current. The remainder continues northwestward along South America's northeast coast into the Caribbean Sea.

Earth cenered on the equatorial pacific west of south america.
(Click image to enlarge)
The Intertropical Convergence Zone, or ITCZ, is the region that circles Earth. Notice the band of bright white clouds in center of the image near the Equator, where the trade winds of the Northern and Southern Hemispheres come together.
Source: NOAA GOES-11 & NASA Earth Observatory

The islands of Indonesia mark the boundary between the Indian and Pacific Oceans but do not completely block the flow of seawater between the two ocean basins. Warm, low salinity waters from the Pacific are transported into the Indian Ocean's South Equatorial Current. These waters flow through the many passages between the thousands of Indonesian islands and replenish the large amounts of water removed by evaporation from the northern Indian Ocean. The summer Asian monsoon circulation transports this water vapor over India and Southeast Asia where it falls as torrential rains. After flowing westward across the Indian Ocean, these waters enter the South Atlantic via the Agulhas Current flowing around southern Africa. The Indonesian islands partially block the inter-ocean flow, which leads to an accumulation of warm surface waters in the western equatorial Pacific Ocean that is linked to El Niño/La Niña.

Adapted from DataStreme Ocean and
used with permission of the
American Meteorological Society.

The two images above show wind speeds and direction in the Pacific Ocean and Atlantic Ocean on August 1, 1999, gathered by the SeaWinds radar instrument flying onboard the QuikScat satellite. The intense surface winds of Typhoon Olga, represented by yellow spirals, can be seen moving around South Korea in the China Sea. QuikScat tracks its birth as a tropical depression in the Philippines and its northward journey in the western Pacific to its landfall in Korea. The eastern North Pacific is dominated by a persistent high-pressure system, whose anticyclonic (clockwise) flow creates strong winds blowing parallel to the coast of Canada and the United States. Three groups of very intense winter storms can be seen around Antarctica, which are associated with the season of maximum sea ice in that region of the world.