ATLANTIC OCEAN, a belt of water, roughly of an -shape, between the western coasts of Europe and Africa and the eastern coasts of North and South America. It extends northward to the Arctic Basin and southward to the Great Southern Ocean. For purposes of measurement the polar boundaries are taken to be the Arctic and Antarctic circles, although in discussing the configuration and circulation it is impossible to adhere strictly to these limits. The Atlantic Ocean consists of two characteristic divisions, the geographical equator forming a fairly satisfactory line of division into North and South Atlantic. The North Atlantic, by far the best-known of the main divisions of the hydrosphere, is remarkable for the immense length of its coast-line and for the large number of enclosed seas connected with it, including on the western side the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico, the Gulf of St Lawrence and Hudson Bay, and on the eastern side the Mediterranean and Black Sea, the North Sea and the Baltic. The North Atlantic is connected with the Arctic Basin by four main channels: (1) Hudson Strait, about 60 m. wide, communicating with the gulfs and straits of the North American Arctic archipelago; (2) Davis Strait, about 200 m. wide, leading to Baffin Bay; (3) Denmark Strait, between Greenland and Iceland, 130 m. wide; and (4) the "Norwegian Sea," about 400 m. wide, extending from Iceland to the Faeroe Islands, the Shetland Islands and the coast of Norway. The width of the North Atlantic in lat. 60°, approximately where it breaks up into the branches just named, is nearly 2000 m.; in about lat. 50° N. the coasts of Ireland and Newfoundland approach to 1750 m.; the breadth then increases rapidly to lat. 40° N., and attains its maximum of 4500 m. in lat. 25° N.; farther south the minimum breadth is reached between Africa and South America, Cape Palmas being only 1600 m. distant from Cape St Roque. In marked contrast to this, the South Atlantic is distinguished by great simplicity of coast-line; inland seas there are none, and it attains its greatest breadth as it merges with the Southern Ocean; in lat. 35° S. the width is 3700 m.
The total area of the North Atlantic, not counting inland seas connected with it, is, according to G. Karstens, 36,438,000 sq. kilometres, or 10,588,000 sq. m.; including the inland seas the area is 45,641,000 sq. kilometres or 13,262,000 sq. m. The area of the South Atlantic is 43,455,000 sq. kilometres, or 12,627,000 sq. m. Although not the most extensive of the great oceans, the Atlantic has by far the largest drainage area. The "long slopes" of the continents on both sides are directed towards the Atlantic, which accordingly receives the waters of a large proportion of the great rivers of the world, including the St Lawrence, the Mississippi, the Orinoco, the Amazon, the rivers of the La Plata, the Congo, the Niger, the Loire, the Rhine, the Elbe and the great rivers of the Mediterranean and the Baltic. Sir J. Murray estimates the total area of land draining to the Atlantic to be 13,432,000 sq. m., or with the Arctic area nearly 20,000,000 sq. m., nearly four times the area draining to the Pacific Ocean, and almost precisely four times the area draining to the Indian Ocean. Murray's calculations give the amount of precipitation received on this area at 15,800 cub. m. annually, and the river discharge from it at 3900 cub. m.
The dominant feature of the relief of the Atlantic basin is a submarine ridge running from north to south from about lat. 50° N. to lat. 40° S., almost exactly in the central line, and following the -shape of the coasts. Over this ridge the average depth is about 1700 fathoms. Towards its northern end the ridge widens and rises to the plateau of the Azores, and in about 50° N. lat. it merges with the "Telegraph Plateau," which extends across nearly the whole ocean from Ireland to Newfoundland. North of the fiftieth parallel the depths diminish towards the north-east, two long submarine ridges of volcanic origin extend north-eastwards to the south-west of Iceland and to the Faeroe Islands, and these, with their intervening valleys, end in a transverse ridge connecting Greenland, through Iceland and the Faeroe Islands, with North-western Scotland and the continental mass of Europe. The mean depth over this ridge is about 250 fathoms, and the maximum depth nowhere reaches 500 fathoms. The main basin of the Atlantic is thus cut off from the Arctic basin, with which the area north of the ridge has complete deep-water communication. This intermediate region, which has Atlantic characteristics down to 300 fathoms, and at greater depths belongs more properly to the Arctic Sea, commonly receives the name of Norwegian Sea. On both sides of the central ridge deep troughs extend southwards from the Telegraph plateau to the Southern Ocean, the deep water coming close to the land all the way down on both sides. In these troughs the depth is seldom much less than 3000 fathoms, and this is exceeded in a series of patches to which Murray has given the name of "Deeps." In the eastern trough the Peake Deep lies off the Bay of Biscay in 20° W. long., Monaco Deep and Chun Deep off the north-west of Africa, Moseley Deep off the Cape Verde Islands, Krech Deep off the Liberian coast, and Buchanan Deep off the mouth of the Congo. The western trough extends northwards into Davis Strait, forming a depression in the Telegraph plateau; to the south of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia are Sigsbee Deep, Libbey Deep and Suhm Deep, each of small area; north-east of the Bahamas Nares Deep forms the largest and deepest depression in the Atlantic, in which a sounding of 4561 fathoms was obtained (70 m. north of Puerto Rico) by the U.S. ship "Blake" in 1883. Immediately to the south of Nares Deep lies the smaller Makarov Deep; and off the coast of South America are Tizard Deep and Havergal Deep.
Before the Antarctic expeditions of 1903-1904 our knowledge of the form of the sea bottom south of 40° S. lat. was almost wholly derived from the soundings of the expedition of Sir J.C. Ross in the "Erebus" and "Terror" (1839-1843), and the bathymetrical maps published were largely the result of deductions based on one sounding taken by Ross in 68° 34' S. lat., 12° 49' W. long., in which he recorded a depth exceeding 4000 fathoms. The Scottish Antarctic expedition has shown this sounding to be erroneous; the "Scotia" obtained samples of bottom, in almost the same spot, from a depth of 2660 fathoms. Combining the results of recent soundings, Dr W.S. Bruce, the leader of the Scottish expedition, finds that there is a ridge "extending in a curve from Madagascar to Bouvet Island, and from Bouvet Island to the Sandwich group, whence there is a forked connexion through the South Orkneys to Graham's Land, and through South Georgia to the Falkland Islands and the South American continent." Again, the central ridge of the South Atlantic extends a thousand miles farther south than was supposed, joining the east and west ridge, just described, between the Bouvet Islands and the Sandwich group.
The foundations of our knowledge of the relief of the Atlantic basin may be said to have been laid by the work of H.M.S. "Challenger" (1873-1876), and the German ship "Gazelle" (1874-1876), the French expedition in the "Travailleur" (1880), and the U.S. surveying vessel "Blake" (1877 and later). Large numbers of additional soundings have been made in recent years by cable ships, by the expeditions of H.S.H. the prince of Monaco, the German "Valdivia" expedition under Professor Chun (1898), and the combined Antarctic expeditions (1903-1904).
The Atlantic Ocean contains a relatively small number of islands. The only continental groups, besides some islands in the Mediterranean, are Iceland, the British Isles, Newfoundland, the West Indies, and the Falklands, and the chief oceanic islands are the Azores, Madeira, the Canaries, the Cape Verde Islands, Ascension, St Helena, Tristan da Cunha and Bouvet Island.
Mean depth, and bottom deposits
The mean depth of the North Atlantic is, according to G. Karstens, 2047 fathoms. If we include the enclosed seas, the North Atlantic has a mean depth of 1800 fathoms. The South Atlantic has a mean depth of 2067 fathoms.
The greater part of the bottom of the Atlantic is covered by a deposit of Globigerina ooze, roughly the area between 1000 and 3000 fathoms, or about 60% of the whole. At a depth of about 3000 fathoms, i.e. in the "Deeps," the Globigerina ooze gradually gives place to red clay. In the shallower tropical waters, especially on the central ridge, considerable areas are covered by Pteropod ooze, a deposit consisting largely of the shells of pelagic molluscs. Diatom ooze is the characteristic deposit in high southern latitudes. The terrigenous deposits consist of blue muds, red muds (abundant along the coast of Brazil, where the amount of organic matter present is insufficient to reduce the iron in the matter brought down by the great rivers to produce blue muds), green muds and sands, and volcanic and coral detritus.
The question of the origin of the Atlantic basin, like that of the other great divisions of the hydrosphere, is still unsettled. Most geologists include the Atlantic with the other oceans in the view they adopt as to its age; but E. Suess and M. Neumayr, while they regard the basin of the Pacific as of great antiquity, believe the Atlantic to date only from the Mesozoic age. Neumayr finds evidence of the existence of a continent between Africa and South America, which protruded into the central North Atlantic, in Jurassic times. F. Kossmat has shown that the Atlantic had substantially its present form during the Cretaceous period.
Distribution of temperature
In describing the mean distribution of temperature in the waters of the Atlantic it is necessary to treat the northern and southern divisions separately. The heat equator, or line of maximum mean surface temperature, starts from the African coast in about 5° N. lat., and closely follows that parallel to 40° W. long., where it bends northwards to the Caribbean Sea. North of this line, near which the temperature is a little over 80° F., the gradient trends somewhat to the east of north, and the temperature is slightly higher on the western than on the eastern side until, in 45° N. lat., the isothermal of 60° F. runs nearly east and west. Beyond this parallel the gradient is directed towards the north-west, and temperatures are much higher on the European than on the American side. From the surface to 500 fathoms the general form of the isothermals remains the same, except that instead of an equatorial maximum belt there is a focus of maximum temperature off the eastern coast of the United States. This focus occupies a larger area and becomes of greater relative intensity as the depth increases until, at 500 fathoms, it becomes an elongated belt extending right across the ocean in about 30° N. lat. Below 500 fathoms the western centres of maximum disappear, and higher temperatures occur in the eastern Atlantic off the Iberian peninsula and north-western Africa down to at least 1000 fathoms; at still greater depths temperature gradually becomes more and more uniform. The communication between the Atlantic and Arctic basins being cut off, as already described, at a depth of about 300 fathoms, the temperatures in the Norwegian Sea below that level are essentially Arctic, usually below the freezing-point of fresh water, except where the distribution is modified by the surface circulation. The isothermals of mean surface temperature in the South Atlantic are in the lower latitudes of an ~-shape, temperatures being higher on the American than on the African side. In latitudes south of 30° S. the curved form tends to disappear, the lines running more and more directly east and west. Below the surface a focus of maximum temperature appears off the coast of South America in about 30° S. lat., and of minimum temperature north and north-east of this maximum. This distribution is most marked at about 300 fathoms, and disappears at 500 fathoms, beyond which depth the lines tend to become parallel and to run east and west, the gradient slowly diminishing.
The Atlantic is by far the saltest of the great oceans. Its saltest waters are found at the surface in two belts, one extending east and west in the North Atlantic between 20° and 30° N. lat., and another of almost equal salinity extending eastwards from the coast of South America in 10° to 20° S. lat. In the equatorial region between these belts the salinity is markedly less, especially in the eastern part. North of the North Atlantic maximum the waters become steadily fresher as latitude increases until the channels opening into the Arctic basin are reached. In all of these water of relatively high salinity usually appears for a long distance towards the north on the eastern side of the channel, while on the western side the water is comparatively fresh; but great variations occur at different seasons and in different years. In the higher latitudes of the South Atlantic the salinity diminishes steadily and tends to be uniform from east to west, except near the southern extremity of South America, where the surface waters are very fresh. Our knowledge of the salinity of waters below the surface is as yet very defective, large areas being still unrepresented by a single observation. The chief facts already established are the greater saltness of the North Atlantic compared with the South Atlantic at all depths, and the low salinity at all depths in the eastern equatorial region, off the Gulf of Guinea.
The wind circulation over the Atlantic is of a very definite character. In the South Atlantic the narrow land surfaces of Africa and South America produce comparatively little effect in disturbing the normal planetary circulation. The tropical belt of high atmospheric pressure is very marked in winter; it is weaker during the summer months, and at that season the greater relative fall of pressure over the land cuts it off into an oval-shaped anticyclone, the centre of which rests on the coolest part of the sea surface in that latitude, near the Gulf of Guinea. South of this anticyclone, from about the latitude of the Cape, we find the region where, on account of the uninterrupted sea surface right round the globe, the planetary circulation is developed to the greatest extent known; the pressure gradient is steep, and the region is swept continuously by strong westerly winds - the "roaring forties."
In the North Atlantic the distribution of pressure and resulting wind circulation are very largely modified by the enormous areas of land and frozen sea which surround the ocean on three sides. The tropical belt of high pressure persists all the year round, but the immense demand for air to supply the ascending currents over the heated land surfaces in summer causes the normal descending movement to be largely reinforced; hence the "North Atlantic anticyclone" is much larger, and its circulation more vigorous, in summer than in winter. Again, during the winter months pressure is relatively high over North America, Western Eurasia and the Arctic regions; hence vast quantities of air are brought down to the surface, and circulation must be kept up by ascending currents over the ocean. The Atlantic anticyclone is, therefore, at its weakest in winter, and on its polar side the polar eddy becomes a trough of low pressure, extending roughly from Labrador to Iceland and Jan Mayen, and traversed by a constant succession of cyclones. The net effect of the surrounding land is, in fact, to reverse the seasonal variations of the planetary circulation, but without destroying its type. In the intermediate belt between the two high-pressure areas the meteorological equator remains permanently north of the geographical equator, moving between it and about 11° N. lat.
The part of this atmospheric circulation which is steadiest in its action is the trade winds, and this is, therefore, the most effective in producing drift movement of the surface waters. The trade winds give rise, in the region most exposed to their influence, to two westward-moving drifts - the equatorial currents, which are separated in parts of their course by currents moving in the opposite direction along the equatorial belt. These last may be of the nature of "reaction" currents; they are collectively known as the equatorial counter-current. On reaching the South American coast, the southern equatorial current splits into two parts at Cape St Roque: one branch, the Brazil current, is deflected southwards and follows the coast as a true stream current at least as far as the river Plate. The second branch proceeds north-westwards towards the West Indies, where it mingles with the waters of the northern equatorial; and the two drifts, blocked by the <-shape of the land, raise the level of the surface in the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea, and in the whole area outside the West Indies. This congestion is relieved by what is probably the most rapid and most voluminous stream current in the world, the Gulf Stream, which runs along the coast of North America, separated from it by a narrow strip of cold water, the "cold wall," to a point off the south-east of Newfoundland. At this point the Gulf Stream water mixes with that from the Labrador current (see below), and a drift current eastwards is set up under the influence of the prevailing westerly winds: this is generally called the Gulf Stream drift. When the Gulf Stream drift approaches the eastern side of the Atlantic it splits into two parts, one going southwards along the north-west coast of Africa, the Canaries current, and another turning northwards and passing to the west of the British Isles. Most of the Canaries current re-enters the northern equatorial, but a certain proportion keeps to the African coast, unites with the equatorial return currents, and penetrates into the Gulf of Guinea. This last feature of the circulation is still somewhat obscure; it is probably to be accounted for by the fact that on this part of the coast the prevailing winds, although to a considerable extent monsoonal, are off-shore winds, blowing the surface waters out to sea, and the place of the water thus removed is filled up by the water derived either from lower levels or from "reaction" currents.
The movements of the northern branch of the Gulf Stream drift have been the object of more careful and more extended study than all the other currents of the ocean put together, except, perhaps, the Gulf Stream itself. The cruises of the "Porcupine" and "Lightning" which led directly to the despatch of the "Challenger" expedition, were altogether within its "sphere of influence"; so also was the great Norwegian Atlantic expedition. More recently, the area has been further explored by the German expedition in the ss. "National," the Danish "Ingolf" expedition, and the minor expeditions of the "Michael Sars," "Jackal," "Research," etc., and since 1902 it has been periodically examined by the International Council for the Study of the Sea. Much has also been done by the discussion of observations made on board vessels belonging to the mercantile marine of various countries. It may now be taken as generally admitted that the current referred to breaks into three main branches. The first passes northwards, most of it between the Faeroe and Shetland Islands, to the coast of Norway, and so on to the Arctic basin, which, as Nansen has shown, it fills to a great depth. The second, the Irminger stream, passes up the west side of Iceland; and the third goes up to the Greenland side of Davis Strait to Baffin Bay. These branches are separated from one another at the surface by currents moving southwards: one passes east of Iceland; the second, the Greenland current, skirts the east coast of Greenland; and the third, the Labrador current already mentioned, follows the western side of Davis Strait.
The development of the equatorial and the Brazil currents in the South Atlantic has already been described. On the polar side of the high-pressure area a west wind drift is under the control of the "roaring forties," and on reaching South Africa part of this is deflected and sent northwards along the west coast as the cold Benguella current which rejoins the equatorial. In the central parts of the two high-pressure areas there is practically no surface circulation. In the North Atlantic this region is covered by enormous banks of gulf-weed (Sargassum bucciferum), hence the name Sargasso Sea. The Sargasso Sea is bounded, roughly, by the lines of 20°-35° N. lat. and 40°-75° W. long.
The sub-surface circulation in the Atlantic may be regarded as consisting of two parts. Where surface water is banked up against the land, as by the equatorial and Gulf Stream drift currents, it appears to penetrate to very considerable depths; the escaping stream currents are at first of great vertical thickness and part of the water at their sources has a downward movement. In the case of the Gulf Stream, which is not much impeded by the land, this descending motion is relatively slight, being perhaps largely due to the greater specific gravity of the water; it ceases to be perceptible beyond about 500 fathoms. On the European-African side the descending movement is more marked, partly because the coast-line is much more irregular and the northward current is deflected against it by the earth's rotation, and partly because of the outflow of salt water from the Mediterranean; here the movement is traceable to at least 1000 fathoms. The northward movement of water across the Norwegian Sea extends down from the surface to the Iceland-Shetland ridge, where it is sharply cut off; the lower levels of the Norwegian Sea are filled with ice-cold Arctic water, close down to the ridge. The south-moving currents originating from melting ice are probably quite shallow. The second part of the circulation in the depth is the slow "creep" of water of very low temperature along the bottom. The North Atlantic being altogether cut off from the Arctic regions, and the vertical circulation being active, this movement is here practically non-existent; but in the South Atlantic, where communication with the Southern Ocean is perfectly open, Antarctic water can be traced to the equator and even beyond.
The tides of the Atlantic Ocean are of great complexity. The tidal wave of the Southern Ocean, which sweeps uninterruptedly round the globe from the east to west, generates a secondary wave between Africa and South America, which travels north at a rate dependent only on the depth of the ocean. With this "free" wave is combined a "forced" wave, generated, by the direct action of the Sun and moon, within the Atlantic area itself. Nothing is known about the relative importance of these two waves.
(H. N. D.)
See also Oceans and Oceanography.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)