The Atlantic is, generally speaking, S-shaped and narrow in relation to its length. The area of the Atlantic without its dependent seas is approximately 31,830,000 square miles (82,440,000 square km), and with them its area is about 41,100,000 square miles (106,460,000 square km). It has an average depth (with its seas) of 10,925 feet (3,300 metres) and a maximum depth of 27,493 feet (8,380 metres) in the Puerto Rico Trench, north of the island of Puerto Rico.
The ocean’s breadth from east to west varies considerably.
Between Newfoundland and Ireland it is about 2,060 miles (3,320 km); farther south it widens to more than 3,000 miles (4,800 km) before narrowing again so that the distance from Cape São Roque, Brazil, to Cape Palmas, Liberia, is only some 1,770 miles (2,850 km). Southward it again becomes broader and is bordered by simple coasts almost without islands; between Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope the ocean approaches Antarctica on a broad front nearly 4,000 miles (6,500 km) wide.
Although not the largest of the world’s oceans, the Atlantic has by far the largest drainage area. The continents on both sides of the Atlantic tend to slope toward it, so that it receives the waters of a great proportion of the major rivers of the world; these include the St. Lawrence, the Mississippi, the Orinoco, the Amazon, the Río de la Plata, the Congo, the Niger, the Loire, the Rhine, the Elbe, and the great rivers draining into the Mediterranean, Black, and Baltic seas. In contrast to the South Atlantic, the North Atlantic is rich in islands, in the variety of its coastline, and in tributary seas. The latter includes the Caribbean Sea, the Gulfs of Mexico and St. Lawrence, and Hudson and Baffin bays on the west and the Baltic, North, Mediterranean, and Black seas on the east.
This article treats the physical and human geography of the Atlantic Ocean as a whole. For detailed discussion of the physical and chemical oceanography and marine geology of the Atlantic Ocean, see ocean.
Various boundaries have been used to define particularly the northern but also the southernlimits of the Atlantic Ocean. There are no universally accepted boundary conventions. In the north the situation is further complicated by the fact that the Arctic Ocean frequently is considered to be a dependent sea of the Atlantic. This is because the Arctic basin—which stretches from the Bering Strait across the North Pole to Spitsbergen and Greenland—resembles a semi-enclosed basin (i.e., it is nearly surrounded by land, receives proportionately large volumes of river discharge and sediments, has an extensive continental margin, and is relatively shallow). In this article, however, the Arctic Ocean is considered a separate entity.
Attempts to define the open-water boundary between the Atlantic and Arctic oceans often rely on arbitrary latitude coordinates or linear transects; the two most common latitudinal boundaries are 65° N and the Arctic Circle (66°30′ N). A less arbitrary method involves drawing a line eastward from Greenland to Iceland along the shallow Greenland-Iceland Rise and from Iceland to the Faroe Islands along the Faroe-Iceland Rise and then northward from the Faroes along the relatively shallow bottom features of the Voring Plateau to the west coast of Norway at a point near 70° N. Perhaps a more appropriate method for determining this boundary is by following the division between the distinctive Arctic and Atlantic water masses: the relatively warm and saline waters of the Norwegian Sea are assigned to the Atlantic, and the cold, lower-salinity waters of the Greenland Sea to the Arctic.
There is less ambiguity about the southern boundaries of the Atlantic Ocean, although the name Southern Ocean has been given to the waters surrounding Antarctica. The most widely accepted limit between the South Atlantic and Indian oceans is a line that runs south from Cape Agulhas, at the southern tip of Africa, along the 20° E meridian to Antarctica. Similarly, the boundary dividing the Atlantic and Pacific oceans passes through the Drake Passage between Cape Horn at the tip of South America and the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.
Relief on the Ocean Floor
The outstanding feature of the Atlantic floor is the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, an immense median mountain range extending throughout the length of the Atlantic, claiming the centre third of the ocean bed, and reaching roughly 1,000 miles (1,600 km) in breadth. This feature, though of tremendous proportions, is but the Atlantic portion of the world-encircling oceanic ridge.
In some places the Mid-Atlantic Ridge reaches above sea level to form islands. Iceland, which rises from its crest, is rent by an extension of the median rift valley. East and west of the ridge, about 12,000 to 18,000 feet (3,700 to 5,500 metres) below sea level, lie basins that seem to present a relatively even profile, but parts of the basin floor are as mountainous as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, while other parts are extremely smooth. The former are rocky abyssal hills; the latter are the abyssal plains that form the upper surface of great ponds of mud that fill many of the broad depressions. Large ancient volcanoes are found singly or in rows in the basins; these rise to form seamounts and, occasionally, islands.
As the continents are approached and the rugged Mid-Atlantic Ridge is left behind, an abyssal plain first is encountered, followed by the smooth, undulating surface of the continental rise. These broad embankments, which lie at depths of some 8,000 to 15,000 feet (2,400 to 4,500 metres) at the foot of continents, reach more than 300 miles (500 km) in width off northwestern Africa, Angola, Argentina, and the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. In other areas they are exceedingly narrow. Millions of years of weathering, erosion, and riverine sediment deposition have contributed to creating the sloping continental rises that are characteristic of the Atlantic basin. It is beneath these slopes—in accumulations 10,000 to 50,000 feet (3,000 to 15,000 metres) thick—that some of the largest potential reserves on Earth of petroleum, natural gas, and coal are found.
The Lesser Antilles and the South Sandwich Islands form large unstable island arcs, where the greatest depths of the Atlantic are found in steep-sided, narrow gashes that drop to more than 25,000 feet (7,600 metres) below sea level and more than 10,000 feet (3,000 metres) below the floors of adjacent basins. Depths greater than 13,000 feet (4,000 metres) occur in the Caribbean basin, which has numerous shallow and several deep connections with the open ocean, and in a few parts of the Mediterranean Sea, which communicates with the Atlantic only through the Strait of Gibraltar. The strait is about 8 miles (13 km) wide at its narrowest point, and the maximum depth on its sill (submarine ridge between basins) is only a little more than 1,000 feet (300 metres). The partial isolation of the large seas adjacent to the Mediterranean has a profound effect on the conditions in the seas themselves, as well as in the open ocean.
Among purely oceanic islands (i.e., those without any foundation of continental rock, usually formed as the result of volcanic action) are Iceland, the Azores, Ascension, St. Helena, Tristan da Cunha, Bouvet, and Gough, which all rise from the Mid-Atlantic Ridge; and the Canary, Madeira, and Cape Verde islands and Fernando de Noronha (near Cape São Roque), which rise from the continental margins of Africa and South America. Volcanic islands of a different sort are those of the two great arcs: the Lesser Antilles and the South Sandwich Islands. Partly continental and partly oceanic are the Greater Antilles in the Caribbean and South Georgia and the South Orkney Islands in the Scotia Sea. Purely continental are the British Isles, Newfoundland, the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas), and Greenland, which is an extension of the Canadian Shield.
The origin and development of the Atlantic Ocean are now accounted for by the theories of continental drift and plate tectonics, according to which a vast protocontinent, Pangea, began to break up about 180 million years ago. The rifting caused the landmasses of the Western and Eastern hemispheres to separate, opening up the Atlantic Ocean basin. As can be seen on a map of the world, the continental coastlines of North America and Europe and of South America and Africa almost match. If the edges of the continental shelves are matched, the fit is nearly perfect. Other geologic and paleontological similarities found on both sides of the Atlantic substantiate the theory of plate tectonics and thus help explain the evolution of the Atlantic.
Perhaps the most conclusive evidence bearing out this theory of origin is to be found in the existence of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The ridge is in effect a long rift zone of mountains, volcanoes, and faulted plateaus. A high heat flow, which is associated with the extrusion of magma and with seafloor spreading, exists in the rift zone. The crustal material on either side of the ridge is notably younger than that on the corresponding plateaus, indicating an uprising of material from Earth’s mantle onto the crest of the ridge. The newer rock is composed mainly of gabbro (a coarse-grained rock formed deep within the mantle under heat and pressure), basalt (a rock that originally poured out at the surface in molten form), and serpentine (a common rock-forming mineral). Consequent movement of the ocean floor and of the continents in opposite directions outward from the ridge is widening the Atlantic basin at an estimated rate of about 0.4 inch (1 cm) to a maximum of about 4 inches (10 cm) per year. The worldwide average rate has been estimated at 1 inch (2.5 cm) annually. Corresponding spreading is occurring at an even faster pace in the Pacific Ocean; in the Atlantic, however, the slower rate of spreading causes the flanks of the ridge to be built up steeply by accumulating lava.
The physiography and geology of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge have been the subject of much scientific study, as has the geology of the Atlantic as a whole. Research has focused on refinement of the theory of plate tectonics. In addition, competing subtheories have been developed regarding the large-scale dynamics and cyclicity of tectonic processes, the effects of heat loss and conduction through oceanic and continental crusts, and relative rates of crustal spreading.
The greater part of the bottom of the Atlantic is covered with calcareous ooze. At depths greater than 16,400 feet (5,000 metres), the calcium carbonate content decreases, and the calcareous deposits give way to red clay. The finer material is not evident on submarine ridges, and the shells of pteropod gastropods (mollusks of the gastropod class comprising the snails) may be sufficiently abundant there to characterize the deposits as pteropod ooze. Diatom ooze (formed from microscopic unicellular algae having cell walls consisting of or resembling silica) is the most widespread deposit in the high southern latitudes but, unlike in the Pacific, is missing in northern latitudes. About three-fifths of the bottom itself is covered with mud (oozes, globigerina, and so forth), about one-fourth with sand, and the rest with rock, gravel, and shells. Airborne material is abundant off the west coast of Africa, where dry offshore winds carry material from the desert regions. In high latitudes, ice-rafted detritus, including rock fragments that occasionally show the effect of glacial abrasion, is an important component.
Thousands of core samples of marine sediment, some more than 130 feet (40 metres) in length, have been collected in the North and South Atlantic by means of piston-coring tubes. These cores have revealed the importance of turbidity currents—occasional catastrophic torrents of sediment-laden, and hence denser, water flowing downslope under clear water—as carriers of great quantities of sediment to the greatest depths in the Atlantic. Since the end of the Pleistocene Epoch (about 11,700 years ago), turbidity currents have been relatively infrequent, with the consequence that the characteristic deposits laid down by them are as a rule covered by several inches of normal pelagic sediment. Study of the shells of planktonic foraminifera in these cores shows that the climatic changes, ice ages, and interglacial ages of the last two million years have been recorded in the sediments as alternations of species adapted to cold or to warm water. In the 1960s the Joint Oceanographic Institutions for Deep Earth Sampling deep-drilling project penetrated the entire thickness of sediment in the Atlantic. Apparently the oldest sediments in the Atlantic basin accumulated during the Mesozoic Era (i.e., about 250 to 65 million years ago). Dating of sediment layers by radioactive-decay measurements or by examination of the traces in rocks of reversals of Earth’s magnetic poles (which occur every few million years) shows that the rate of accumulation of pelagic sediment in the Atlantic is 0.4 to 0.8 inch (1 to 2 cm) per thousand years. The rate in a given locality, however, may be much faster because of deposition by turbidity currents.
The North Atlantic
Weather over the North Atlantic is largely determined by large-scale wind currents and air masses emanating from North America. Near Iceland, atmospheric pressure tends to be low, and air flows in a counterclockwise direction. Conversely, air flows clockwise around the Azores, a high-pressure area. The meeting of these two air currents generates prevailing westerly winds across the North Atlantic and over western Europe. In winter these winds meander at altitudes of about 10,000 to 40,000 feet (3,000 to 12,200 metres) over North America in such a way that a northward bulge (ridge) is generated by and over the Rocky Mountains and a southward bulge (trough) develops over the eastern half of the continent. This geographically forced flow pattern sets the stage for the frequent intrusion of cold air masses from Canada and Alaska to the Atlantic seaboard. Large temperature contrasts occur between the polar outbreaks and mild air from the Pacific or tropical air from the Gulf of Mexico or Gulf Stream. Along these zones of contrast, which are called fronts, extratropical (or wave) cyclones (low-pressure areas) are formed, and these develop into strong vortices as they move northeastward toward Newfoundland and Iceland. Their growth rate depends largely on the temperature contrast, so that storms in winter usually are stronger than those in summer.
These cyclonic storms carry heat, moisture, and momentum northward from the tropics and thereby siphon off the excess heat constantly generated by solar heating in the tropics. They also contribute a large share of the energy required to maintain the prevailing westerlies of midlatitudes, which are found to be half as strong and about 10° farther north in latitude over the North Atlantic in summer than in winter.
Since even in winter the temperatures of air masses along the eastern seaboard of North America vary considerably from one week to another, the number of coastal storms, their growth rate, and even their paths may vary. Thus, despite the underlying fixed geography, the North Atlantic average pressure distribution, on which the prevailing winds depend, may show large differences from one winter to the next. In some winters, Iceland may be dominated by prevailing high pressure in contrast to the normally low pressure, and in this case storms leaving the North American coast are blocked and shunted into the Davis Strait and to the Azores. When this happens, warm maritime air masses that normally flow into Europe and account for its relatively mild winters (considering its high latitude) are replaced by cold air from the European Arctic and from Siberia.
Thus, in winter tremendous amounts of heat are extracted from the western North Atlantic by overflowing cold air masses. Although the transfer of real (sensible) heat is large, the transfer of heat by evaporative losses into the cold, dry air is about three times larger. The oceanic heat losses are soon restored by the flow of warm water associated with the Gulf Stream and other currents. The net effect of the increase in heat and moisture off the east coast of North America is to further stimulate the growth of cyclonic storms.
In latitudes 15° to 30° N, the North Atlantic is characterized by prevailing high pressure with an attendant lack of intense storms and severe weather. These high-pressure areas are part of a globe-encircling belt in which air from the westerlies to the north and from the tropics to the south sinks about 900 feet (275 metres) per day and is warmed by compression, so that the weather there is often sunny and rainless. South of this North Atlantic high-pressure zone, the northeast trade winds blow with characteristic steadiness.
Although low latitudes of the North Atlantic are usually storm-free, there are notable exceptions during late summer and early fall, when wavy patterns in the east winds occur and occasionally develop into tropical-storm vortices called hurricanes. The hurricanes grow by the liberation of vast amounts of heat when vapour evaporated from the warm ocean is lifted and condensed to bands of heavy showers. Hurricanes may persist for more than a week, traveling as vortices of severe winds steered by upper-air currents. Thus, they frequently move clockwise around the periphery of the North Atlantic high-pressure belt and into the prevailing westerlies, often ending up in the Icelandic area. They have, however, occasionally struck the British Isles, and even the Azores, in modified form with abnormal upper-air wind patterns.
The North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) is an irregular climate fluctuation, the phases of which may span months to decades. The phenomenon is measured by changes in a north-south atmospheric pressure gradient over the North Atlantic. Periodic shifts in relative pressure between the southern high and the northern low define the NAO. In general, the steeper the gradient, the stronger the wind, and the more heat from the Atlantic’s Gulf Stream is delivered to Europe, thereby ameliorating its climate. The NAO’s effect is more local than global, distinguishing it from other large-scale climate variations, such as the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO).
The South Atlantic
Over the South Atlantic the belt of prevailing westerlies extends from about latitude 40° S almost to Antarctica, and the South Atlantic high-pressure area is centred around 30° S. This anticyclone (circulation of winds around a central region of high atmospheric pressure) leads to southeast trade winds on its north side, since the rotation of wind around the high-pressure area is opposite to that in the Northern Hemisphere because of the Coriolis force (the effect caused by Earth’s rotation). The southeast trades meet the northeast trades in the intertropical convergence zone, a region roughly centring on the Equator and characterized by heavy showers resulting from ascending warm, moist air that is being continually replaced by moistened trade-wind air. The doldrums, areas of calm oceanic and climatic conditions, also occur within the zone.
As in the North Atlantic, the weather usually is settled and fine in the latitudes of high pressure but is unsettled and stormy in the higher latitudes of the westerlies. The great storminess of the Southern Hemisphere westerlies derives largely from the temperature contrast set up by the cold Antarctic continent and the adjacent open sea, rather than from the west-east contrast described in connection with the North Atlantic storms.
While many regional weather peculiarities may be found over both the North and the South Atlantic, one of the most interesting is the large amount and variety of clouds in the westerlies. These clouds are continually being generated by the large cyclonic storm systems, by warm, moist air masses condensing while moving northward over colder water (in advance of storms), and by rapid vertical ascent (convection) produced by cold air streaming over warm water. Extensive fog banks may frequently be seen in summer off the Grand Banks, for example, when heated air from the continent is forced to flow over the cold Labrador Current.
The surface currents of the Atlantic Ocean primarily correspond to the system of prevailing winds with such modifications as are imposed on the movement of the water by land boundaries. Other factors that influence the currents are regional excesses of evaporation or precipitation, regional differences in cooling or heating, friction, and Earth’s rotation.
The North Atlantic
In the North Atlantic, the trade winds maintain a fairly steady current from east to west, partly by the direct action of the wind and partly by maintaining an accumulation of warm water on the northern side of the current. A great bulk of water carried by this current continues into the Caribbean Sea and through the Strait of Yucatán into the Gulf of Mexico, from which it flows out as the warm and swift Florida Current through the Straits of Florida. This current, reinforced by water that has flowed on the eastern side of the Antilles as the Antilles Current, forms the Gulf Stream off the North American east coast. The Gulf Stream follows the coast closely to the north and northeast as far as Cape Hatteras, continues at some distance from the coast, and turns increasingly toward the east, flowing due east to the south of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland in latitude 40° N. In its further course, the Gulf Stream loses its identity as a well-defined current. Branches of warm surface water turn to the right (south) and form part of the big anticyclonic eddy, or gyre, circulating around the Sargasso Sea (an area of the North Atlantic between the West Indies and the Azores, characterized by relatively still waters). Somewhat colder water continues toward the European coast as the North Atlantic Current. Vestiges of the Gulf Stream can be traced as far north as Spitsbergen, above Norway at about latitude 78° N.
Cold, low-salinity water flows south from the Arctic Ocean along the east coast of Greenland as the East Greenland Current, where it is gradually mixed with warmer Atlantic water. This water continues around the southern tip of Greenland (Cape Farewell), flows north along the west coast of Greenland, turns around again, and, after the addition of cold water from Baffin Bay, flows south through the Labrador Sea as the cold Labrador Current. To the south of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, where this cold water meets the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, it is deflected toward the east and mixes with the Atlantic water. In winter this mixed water, with a salinity of almost 35 parts per thousand, is cooled to a temperature of nearly 37 °F (3 °C), whereby it attains a density high enough to make it sink to the bottom and spread to the south. Similarly, bottom water is formed in winter to the north of Iceland, but this has a considerably lower temperature, about 30 °F (−1 °C). It fills the deep basin of the Norwegian Seabut is prevented from returning directly into the Atlantic Ocean by the Faroe-Iceland and Greenland-Iceland rises; after some intermixing, water from the Norwegian Basin eventually crosses this ridge system to the Atlantic.
In the southeastern part of the North Atlantic, surface water flows through the Strait of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean, and high-salinity deep water of the Mediterranean flows out along the bottom of the strait and spreads over wide areas. The Canary Current branches south from the North Atlantic Current and then flows southwestward along the west coast of northwestern Africa; low temperatures prevail along the African coast, the result of upwellings caused by offshore winds from the continent. This water continues westward across the southern part of the North Atlantic as part of the warm North Equatorial Current, which turns northwestward as the Antilles Current upon reaching the West Indies and completes the North Atlantic circulation pattern.
The South Atlantic
The currents of the South Atlantic correspond in many respects to those of the North Atlantic. The southeast trade winds maintain the South Equatorial Current, which flows toward the west where it divides into two branches: one that continues to the Northern Hemisphere and enters the Caribbean—together with a small amount of water from the North Equatorial Current—as the Guiana (Guyana) Current and one that turns south as the Brazil Current, a weak counterpart of the Gulf Stream. Between the equatorial currents, the Equatorial Countercurrent flows toward the east and is particularly well developed off Ghana, where, after combining with a warm, south-flowing extension of the Canary Current, it is known as the Guinea Current. To the south of the high-pressure area of the South Atlantic, the Brazil Current flows to the east and becomes the South Atlantic Current, which then turns toward the Equator as the Benguela Current when reaching the African coast. The Benguela Current is more pronounced than its northern counterpart, the Canary Current, and also is characterized by lower temperatures near the coast, again caused by intense upwelling. Farther south the east-flowing Antarctic Circumpolar Current enters the Atlantic Ocean through the Drake Passage, sending one branch, the Falkland Current (a counterpart of the Labrador Current), northward along the east coast of Argentina. The major branch of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current continues to the east into the Indian Ocean, sending another branch northeastward to help form the Benguela Current.
The deep and bottom water of the North Atlantic, as already stated, consists of surface water sinking between Iceland and Greenland and in the Labrador Sea, from which it spreads to the south. At depths between about 3,000 and 6,500 feet (900 and 2,000 metres), the water that flows out from the Mediterranean spreads and forms an intermediate salinity maximum. With increasing distance from the Mediterranean, the salinity decreases because of mixing with other water masses, but traces of Mediterranean water are found as far south as latitude 40° S.
In the Antarctic region, bottom water with a temperature of about 31 °F (− 0.6 °C) and salinity of 34.6 parts per thousand is formed by the sinking of water from the continental shelf. The temperature of this water is so low that its density is higher than that of the North Atlantic deep water. This water flows as far north as latitude 40° N. Surface water sinks at the Antarctic Convergence around 50° S and spreads to the north as low-salinity water. This Antarctic intermediate water also crosses the Equator and can be traced to about 20° N. Large amounts of the Antarctic bottom water and intermediate water mix with the North Atlantic deep water, return to the south, and rise toward the surface between latitudes 50° and 60° S. In rising, the deep water brings quantities of plant nutrients, including phosphates, to the surface layers, and the oceanic circulation therefore accounts for the high biological productivity of the Antarctic waters.
The deep and bottom waters of the Atlantic are characterized by a high oxygen content because there exists a fairly rapid circulation. The waters have sunk from the surface, where they became saturated with oxygen by contact with the air.
The tides of the Atlantic Ocean have been observed since ancient times. Medieval monks recorded tidal movements along the coast of England as early as AD 600 and correctly understood the relationship between the tides and the position of the sun and the phases of the moon. The use of precision tidal gauges for continuous data collection and of sophisticated computers for modeling and prediction has improved considerably the accuracy of tide tables and the understanding of the individual constituent forces that determine and affect tidal activity.
The tide of the S-shaped north-south Atlantic basin can be viewed as a single phenomenon that behaves like a large standing wave passing through the basin. The speed, course, dimensions, and behaviour of the Atlantic tide are influenced by a combination of complex factors, which include coastline features, seafloor topography, and wind and current patterns. By far the most prevalent tidal type is semidiurnal, which is characterized by two high and two low tides per tidal day (lasting about 24 hours and 50 minutes). Semidiurnal tides occur along the entire eastern margin of the Atlantic and along most of North and South America. Mixed tides, or those that can have both diurnal (one high and one low tide per day) and semidiurnal oscillations, predominate in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea and also are found along the southeastern coast of Brazil and in Tierra del Fuego, in some areas of the Mediterranean, and along the coast of Labrador; the only purely diurnal tides occur in portions of the Gulf of Mexico.
Tidal periods and patterns at various points around the basin may be quite distinct. The most notable tidal ranges are found in the Bay of Fundy in Canada, where the difference between high and low water exceeds 40 feet (12 metres), and along the coast of Brittany in France, where the range is some 16 feet (5 metres). The smallest tidal ranges occur in parts of the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, and the Mediterranean, all of which have oscillations of less than 3 feet (1 metre).
Salinity and Temperature
The surface waters of the North Atlantic have a higher salinity than those of any other ocean, reaching values exceeding 37 parts per thousand in latitudes 20° to 30° N. The salinity distribution is also related to the currents but is greatly influenced by evaporation and precipitation. The basic salinity value differs from one area of the Atlantic to another; it is highest for the North Atlantic, at 35.5 parts per thousand, and lowest for the South Atlantic, at 34.5. This difference can be explained as the effect of the intense evaporation in the Mediterranean and the outflow from that sea of high-salinity water that maintains the salinity of the North Atlantic at a higher level than that characteristic of any other ocean. On average, for every latitude range (e.g., 0° to 5° N), the deviations from the basic value are proportional to the difference between evaporation and precipitation. Near the Equator, precipitation dominates and surface salinities of about 35 parts per thousand are encountered; but, in latitudes 20° to 25° N and about 20° S, evaporation greatly exceeds precipitation, and over large areas the surface salinity is greater than 37 parts per thousand. At increasingly higher latitudes, precipitation again becomes greater than evaporation, and, correspondingly, the surface salinity decreases in large areas to values less than 34 parts per thousand.
Superimposed on these general features are the effects of currents, which again are more striking in the North Atlantic, where Atlantic water of salinity exceeding 35 parts per thousand is carried as far north as Spitsbergen, and Arctic water with a salinity of less than 34 parts per thousand is carried south to nearly 45° N off Newfoundland. North of 40° N the sea-surface isohalines (lines of equal salinity) run nearly in a north-south direction, whereas south of 45° S they run east-west.
The salinity of adjacent seas depends also on the runoff from rivers. The Mediterranean Sea, where the runoff is small and evaporation is great, has high salinities; in the Black Sea and in the Baltic, where large rivers empty, the salinity is low. The inner part of the Gulf of Bothniabetween Sweden and Finland consists of water that is nearly fresh.
The distribution of the sea-surface temperature is closely related to the character of the currents. The waters of the North Equatorial Current spread to the north, and those of the South Equatorial Current spread both north and south when reaching the east coasts of North and South America. Correspondingly, the region of high surface temperature is wide off the American east coasts but narrow off the African coast, where the Canary Current and the Benguela Current carry cold water toward the Equator. Therefore, in latitudes about 10° to 30° S and 10° to 30° N, the sea surface is warmer off the eastern coast than off the western, but at latitudes higher than 30° this feature is reversed. This reversal is barely evident in the South Atlantic, where the Falkland Current carries cold water up to about latitude 30° S (in August to 25° S), but is conspicuous in the North Atlantic. There the Labrador Current brings cold water to latitude 40° N, whereas the extreme branches of the Gulf Stream system carry warm water along the coast of Norway, where ports remain ice-free even at latitude 71° N. The contrast between the South and the North Atlantic is related to the surface currents, which in turn reflect the action of the prevailing winds and the effect of the shape of the coasts. Where the Falkland Current meets the Brazil Current and where the Labrador Current meets the Gulf Stream, the surface temperature changes rapidly within a short distance. The change is particularly striking at the conjunction of the Gulf Stream and the Labrador Current, where the interface is called the “cold wall.”
In the tropics the surface temperature is controlled by climatological factors to such an extent that it is nearly uniform, and differences related to currents do not appear. Such differences are very marked, however, at a depth of about 650 feet (200 metres), where in latitude 6° to 7° N the temperature is 50 °F (10 °C), whereas it is 68 °F (20 °C) in latitude 20° N. The existence of the cold water at shallow depths to the north of the Equator does not mean that deep water rises to the surface. The temperature distribution is directly related to the existence of equatorial currents flowing toward the west. In the Northern Hemisphere the warm water must be to the right of these currents; in the Southern Hemisphere it must be to the left.
In the North Atlantic the temperature decreases slowly toward the bottom from a value of about 41 °F (5 °C) at roughly 3,000 feet (900 metres) to about 36.5 °F (2.5 °C) at the seafloor. In the South Atlantic up to latitude 40° S, the temperature first decreases to a minimum between 3,000 and 4,000 feet (900 and 1,200 metres). It then increases to a maximum of 36 to 39 °F (2 to 4 °C) at about 6,500 feet (2,000 metres), indicating the flow of North Atlantic deep water, before decreasing to less than 34 °F (1 °C) at the ocean floor, where Antarctic bottom water is encountered. To the south of 40° S, low temperatures prevail throughout, dropping below 32 °F (0 °C) near Antarctica.
Compilations of temperature observations from 1948 to 2003 from all depths in the world’s oceans reveal a periodicity in warming and cooling. These observations demonstrate the capacity of the oceans for storing and transporting heat. An observed warming trend of the ocean’s waters more recently is consistent with similarly observed global warming of the atmosphere; a growing number of researchers have concluded that human activities are contributing to the warming trend, although the extent of this contribution is not yet known. Both the North and South Atlantic exhibit temperature anomalies (i.e., departures from a long-term average) beginning in the late 1960s on the order of 0.9 °F (0.5 °C) and 0.2 °F (0.1 °C), respectively, in roughly the top 1,000 feet (300 metres). The Atlantic is the only ocean to exhibit a substantial warming below about 3,300 feet (1,000 metres), which suggests heat transport. Both the North and South Atlantic have exhibited increases in temperature anomalies on the order of 0.1 °F (0.05 °C) in about the top 9,800 feet (3,000 metres). The fastest rate of warming indicated by these anomalies is in the North Atlantic, at nearly 1.8 °F (1 °C) per century.
The great north-south extent, relatively broad areas of continental shelf, proportionally large runoff from land, and circulation patterns are all factors that have given the Atlantic a proliferation of plant (i.e., algae) and animal species that is second only to that of the Pacific among the world’s oceans. A large variety of seaweeds inhabit the shallower continental margins and coastal areas, particularly in the North Atlantic. Algae of commercial value include the kelp genus Laminaria, a source of iodine, potassium, and algin; Irish moss (Chondrus crispus), from which carrageenan is derived; and such edible varieties as dulse (Rhodymenia palmata) and laver (Porphyra). Also of note in the North Atlantic are the huge masses of gulfweed (Sargassum natans) in the Sargasso Sea, which support large communities of crustaceans and fish normally associated with coastal regions and which are the spawning grounds for the American and European freshwater eels of the genus Anguilla.
The areas of coastal upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich deep water—especially off western Africa, in the Grand Banks of Newfoundland and the waters surrounding Iceland, and off the coasts of southeastern South America and southern Africa—are the sites of large plankton blooms, which in turn are the basis of much of the Atlantic’s rich fish life. The greatest concentrations of plankton are found in the North Atlantic. In tropical regions, plankton production is fairly constant throughout the year, whereas with increasing latitude it becomes tied to the availability of sunlight and results in explosive and relatively short-lived blooms.
In addition to fish, the Atlantic is home to a variety of sponges, sea anemones, horseshoe crabs, mollusks, and sea turtles. Coral reefs are confined largely to the Caribbean and do not approach those of the Pacific in the diversity of their reef life. Marine mammals consist primarily of dolphins and dwindling numbers of manatees in tropical regions and harp seals in the northwest of the basin. Whales generally are restricted to the cool-temperate and Antarctic regions of the South Atlantic, although many species migrate to tropical waters to breed.
The Atlantic’s major fishing grounds—representing more than half the world’s total—long were the most productive and most heavily utilized of all the oceans. For some time, many Atlantic species have been intensively fished, and some key populations are thought to be at or near collapse. While the total global marine catch increased steadily over the second half of the 20th century, that for the Atlantic remained fairly constant. Consequently, the Atlantic’s share of the overall marine catch dropped from more than half in the 1950s to roughly one-fifth by the time the global catch leveled off in the early 21st century.
The Atlantic continues to provide millions of tons of fish annually for human consumption and industrial purposes. Nearly all of the Atlantic fish catch is taken from waters of the continental shelf, primarily from the nutrient-rich areas, where upwellings occur. Among the important commercial fish taken in the North Atlantic are the demersal (deep-dwelling) species such as lobster and members of the Gadidae (cod) family—notably haddock and cod—and such pelagic (free-swimming) species as lobster, mackerel, herring, and menhaden. Important commercial shellfish species include sea scallops, surf clams, ocean quahogs, and blue mussels. In the Gulf of Mexico and in equatorial regions, shrimp, shellfish, and eels are harvested in quantities. Hake, tuna, and pilchard are key commercial species in the South Atlantic, despite severe depletion of the latter two stocks.
Many Atlantic countries have been attempting to protect—with limited success—their living resources by managing the level of fishing activity in their territorial waters and 200-nautical-mile (370-kilometre) exclusive economic zones. Methods used have included area closures, permits, catch limits and quotas, and time and season restrictions.
The United Nations has reviewed the status of fish stocks in its six major Atlantic Ocean fishing regions. Except for the southwest Atlantic region, for which fishing efforts have been increasing, the five other regions have been classified as “overfished.” This designation implies that the fisheries have been overexploited and that fish stocks have fallen below the level necessary to replenish themselves fully through natural reproduction. Some species, such as the barn door skate, have been inadvertently overfished nearly to extinction as a consequence of bycatch in fisheries targeting cod and redfish.
Coastal aquaculture provides a significant and growing share of marine food production. Shellfish culturing began as early as the Middle Ages along the Atlantic coast of Europe. Oysters, mussels, and hard and soft clams are produced in protected embayments and estuaries. Atlantic salmon has become an important cultured finfish in Scandinavia, Scotland, the Canadian Maritime Provinces, and Maine, where the species is grown in large-scale fish pens in open-ocean waters. Research and development efforts in Europe, Canada, and the United States have focused on growing species in open-ocean environments, where conflicts with other uses are minimized. Salmon, cod, haddock, fluke, sea scallops, and mussels have been among the species of particular interest.
A wealth of petroleum and natural gas lies under the continental shelves and slopes and the oceanic rises and plateaus of the Atlantic basin proper and portions of its marginal seas. The amount of recoverable reserves is enormous: some estimates have ranged as high as one-third of the projected total for all of the world’s recoverable oil and natural gas. The value of these resources represents the vast majority of all of the Atlantic’s nonrenewable resources. In the United States, revenues from offshore leases have been one of the largest sources of federal income, and receipts from offshore production have been important for the economies of the United Kingdom and Norway since the 1970s.
The earliest exploitation of Atlantic hydrocarbon reserves occurred in Lake Maracaibo (a nearly enclosed embayment in northwestern Venezuela that is connected by a narrow channel to the Caribbean Sea) during World War I, followed in the 1940s by the development of nearshore areas of the Gulf of Mexico. Extensive offshore seismic exploration since the 1960s has revealed recoverable oil and natural gas deposits elsewhere in the Atlantic. Most of these deposits are found in the sediments of the continental rise and shelf areas, and they are concentrated in four primary provinces: the Gulf of Mexico, mainly along the coasts of Louisiana and Texas and in the Bay of Campeche; the North Sea; the west-central coast of Africa, principally in the Niger River delta region and off the coasts of Gabon and Cabinda (an exclave of Angola north of the Congo River); and east of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. Exploration has been conducted in all four of these areas, and production has grown steadily. Great technological advancement has taken place in the immense North Sea fields, and experience there has contributed much toward understanding the operational and environmental challenges of exploiting newer, more-difficult areas of the seabed.
Massive coal deposits have been discovered deep beneath the floor of the North Sea and along portions of the continental shelf, but limitations in technology have hindered their exploitation. Some coal is mined off the coasts of Cornwall in Britain and Nova Scotia by means of land-based mine shafts.
Methane hydrates are an important potential energy resource found in some Atlantic ocean sediments. Hydrates are a gas (methane) surrounded by water molecules existing in a solid form. Below depths of roughly 1,650 feet (500 metres), methane hydrates can occur as stable deposits in sediments of the ocean floor up to hundreds of feet thick. Research into the extraction and production of methane hydrates as a backstop resource to existing supplies of petroleum and natural gas has been ongoing. In the United States, methane deposits in the permafrost regions of Alaska and surrounding waters and in a large area off the mid-Atlantic coast are among the most highly concentrated.
Extensive mining of sand, gravel, and shell deposits in shallow parts of the continental shelf takes place off the coasts of the United States and Britain. The recovered aggregates are used as landfill, for construction, and for making concrete. Deposits of calcareous shells are dredged off the coast of Iceland and on the Great Bahama Bank in the Bahamas, and the shells are used in cement manufacture and as a soil additive. Offshore placer deposits of precious metals, metallic ores (e.g., of iron, tin, titanium, and chromium), and gemstones are found at various points along the Atlantic coastline, particularly off the southeastern United States, Wales, Brazil, Mauritania, and Namibia. Exploitation of these deposits has been erratic. Diamonds have been dredged from the shallow waters and beaches off the coast of Namibia near the mouth of the Orange River. Exploitation has moved more recently into deeper waters offshore. Quantities of phosphorite are found along the continental margin in a number of locations, the largest deposits occurring off the coast of the United States, beyond the mouth of the Río de la Plata off Uruguay and Argentina, between Patagonia and the Falkland Islands, and around the southern tip of South Africa. Sulfur is recovered from the floor of the Gulf of Mexico off Louisiana.
Certain regions of the ocean floor that are covered with red clay and siliceous ooze sediments are also carpeted with metallic nodules. The nodules form in concentric layers over millions of years and are composed primarily of manganese and iron, with lesser quantities of copper, nickel, and cobalt. The main concentrations of nodules are thought to be on the Sohm Plain east of Bermuda in the North Atlantic and in the Brazil Basin east of Brazil and the Agulhas Basin south of South Africa in the South Atlantic. Nodule deposits on the Blake Plateau off the east coast of the United States were touted as an economic resource in the 1960s, but they were never exploited commercially. The nodule accumulations found in the Atlantic are smaller and less economically promising than those found in the Pacific. Ferromanganese nodules were first dredged from the Atlantic in the mid-19th century, but they have yet to be exploited as a mineral resource.
Minerals from Seawater
Sea salt (sodium chloride and other salts) has been obtained (mostly by solar evaporation) from the waters of the Atlantic and its marginal seas for millennia. Ancient coastal salt pans along the Mediterranean are still in operation, while the production capacity at Manaure, Colom., is one of the largest in the world. In addition, commercial operations extract bromine along the northwestern coast of the Mediterranean and magnesium along the Gulf Coast of the United States and off the coast of Norway. Desalinization plants have increased in number as technology has improved.
As coastal populations along the Atlantic and its marginal seas have swelled—particularly in Europe and North America—there has been substantial growth in such recreational activities as sportfishing, sailing and cruising, windsurfing, and whale watching. Many of these activities compete for space and community support with such traditional commercial marine activities as fishing and shipping. Sportfishing, for example, now constitutes a significant portion of the total marine catch in the west-central Atlantic and is thought to be threatening the populations of some commercial species. The economic livelihood of much of the Caribbean basin, Bermuda, the Florida Keys, and the French Riviera is tied closely to their tourist and recreational industries.
Experimental and fully operational plants for converting tidal and wave energy to electricity have been set up at such points as the Kval Sound in northern Norway, the Isle of Islay off western Scotland, the River Severn estuary in Britain, the Bay of Fundy in Canada, and the coast of Brittany in France. Some areas of the tropical Atlantic have been identified as having the potential for thermal energy conversion (i.e., using the differentials between the temperature of surface and deep waters to generate electricity).
Trade and Transportation
The Atlantic and its marginal seas have been used as oceanic highways to convey goods and passengers since humans first ventured onto the sea. The earliest records of extensive trading networks in the world are from the Egyptian, Phoenician, Greek, and Roman civilizations. Much of the history of Western civilization since AD 1500—particularly during the 18th and 19th centuries—has centred around the Atlantic: the settlement of the Americas and the Caribbean by millions of colonists, slaves, and immigrants primarily from Europe and Africa; the continued technological development of ships, which reduced crossing time and increased carrying capacities; and the enormous growth in transatlantic trade and commerce.
Until the end of World War II, the North Atlantic supported the world’s largest volume of shipping. The opening of the Suez and Panama canals, the development of hydrocarbon production in the Persian Gulf, and the growing importance of Pacific trade have shifted the pattern of world trade away from the North Atlantic. Nonetheless, the location of major consumer markets in Europe and North America has sustained an extensive seaborne-trade network in the Atlantic.
The general trade pattern for commodities consists of the movement of bulk cargoes—such as crude oil, coal, grain, iron ore, and bauxite—from such extraction and processing centres as Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, and Jamaica to the industrial production centres in the United States, Canada, and Europe. Movement in the opposite direction tends to be dominated by durable goods (e.g., machinery and motor vehicles) and other manufactures, although both the United States and Canada also export considerable quantities of grain, coal, and iron ore. Container operations are well established between many North Atlantic ports, with the busiest ports being New York City (Port Authority of New York and New Jersey), Charleston, S.C., and Hampton Roads, Va., in the west and Rotterdam, Neth. (Europoort), and Hamburg, Ger., in the east.
Environmental Impact of Human Activity
Open-ocean areas of the Atlantic have remained largely free of human-generated wastes, but increases in marine pollution have been found in poorly mixed coastal waters, especially those located near population and industrial centres and river mouths. Although marine pollution is frequently associated with such activities as ocean dumping, shipping (notably crude oil), and offshore hydrocarbon production, the bulk of it originates from land-based sources such as untreated or poorly treated sewage, industrial waste such as heavy metals, and agricultural runoff (fertilizer and pesticides). The most visible effect on polluted waters occurs when they become overloaded with such nutrients as nitrogen and phosphates, and algae grows in excess quantities; this eventually depletes available oxygen and reduces or exterminates animal life. Another area of concern is pesticides such as DDT and such chemically stable compounds as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), trace levels of which have been measured even in deep-sea Atlantic organisms. The introduction of these harmful compounds into the marine environment appears to be decreasing, but their resistance to chemical breakdown (especially PCBs) and their tendency to accumulate in higher organisms continue to make them a threat to marine life and to humans. Among the most-polluted locations in the Atlantic and its marginal seas are the Baltic Sea, the southern North Sea and English Channel, the northern and eastern portions of the Mediterranean, the northeastern coast of the United States, the Río de la Plata and the southeastern coast of Brazil, and the northern coast of the Gulf of Guinea.
Study and Exploration
Advances in archaeological study have strengthened claims by many scholars that various seafaring peoples of the Mediterranean ventured into the open Atlantic before 600 BC and engaged in some transatlantic voyages perhaps as early as AD 545. Nevertheless, substantial debate continues over the extent and scope of pre-Viking explorations of the Atlantic. Widely accepted are the seafaring contributions of the Egyptians, Celts, Phoenicians, and Romans, whose trading and fishing forays led them certainly to the coastlines of western Africa and Greenland and possibly as far as the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. The combined influence of gradual climatic change and the ravages of war led Viking and Norse sailors westward across the Atlantic beginning sometime around AD 800 to 900. After numerous landings were made in Iceland during the 9th century, Greenland was explored in 982 and settled some three years later by Erik the Red. Similar expeditions brought Norse ships to the coasts of present-day Newfoundland and Labrador, as well as to that of Maine.
European Voyages and Settlement
The saga of discovery and settlement of the Americas and the Caribbean, begun by Europeans in the late 15th century, lasted more than 200 years. Successive transatlantic crossings—first into the Caribbean and then to the coast of Canada and along the coast of South America—describe the general pattern of exploration by the Spanish, Portuguese, Italians, French, and English. The clockwise circulation and current patterns that characterize the Atlantic were used to full advantage by seafarers, who would cross westward on steady prevailing northeasterly trades and use the Gulf Stream and westerly breezes of the North Atlantic for their return trips.
In 1492 the Italian Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic in a Spanish-backed attempt to find a new trading route to Asia. While that objective went unfulfilled, subsequent voyages by explorers such as John Cabot, Ferdinand Magellan, and Giovanni da Verrazzano did much to reveal both the complexities of transatlantic navigation and the nature of the Americas. By 1502 the rich fishery of the Grand Banks off Newfoundland was being exploited by English, French, and Portuguese ships. Crude attempts at depicting the coastline of North America from present-day Virginia northward to the Davis Strait had already begun by then. Simultaneously, Portuguese seafarers led by Bartolomeu Dias had pushed southward to the Cape of Good Hope, mapping the entire western coast of Africa in the process and proving the existence of a sea route between Europe and India. In 1520 Magellan discovered the strait, now bearing his name, that links the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The discovery of Cape Horn at the southernmost tip of South America was made in 1578 by the English navigator Francis Drake; this provided a more suitable route for trading ships. Exploration provided the impetus for colonization, and, as isolated outposts gave way to larger protected settlements and military garrisons in the 17th and 18th centuries, exploitation of natural resources from both land and sea increased, as did the flow of colonists to the Americas and the Caribbean.
The groundwork for much of this exploration, as well as for early ocean science, can be attributed to Henry the Navigator, the 15th-century Portuguese prince whose school of oceanography at Sagres, Port., provided training for hundreds of seamen and advanced substantially the fields of ship design, simulation, and instrumentation. Modern efforts to study systematically the physical and biological properties of the Atlantic began in earnest during the 1800s and were notable for several pioneering research expeditions, the results of which form the basis for present-day scientific understanding of the oceans. While crude sampling and inaccurate measurement techniques led to numerous misconceptions during this time, the period also marked the advent of large-scale, multiyear scientific expeditions.
Incremental advances in both oceanographic theory and technique evolved from these early interdisciplinary studies of Atlantic processes. As early as 1770, the American Benjamin Franklin published the first good map of the Gulf Stream, based on data collected by Timothy Folger from the logs of transatlantic mail ships. The work of the American naval officer Matthew Fontaine Maury in the 1840s and ’50s paved the way for generations of future researchers. His exhaustive calculations of Atlantic winds and currents, as well as his early seafloor maps, were the beginning of modern oceanography in the United States.
The advent of the telegraph and the dream of a transatlantic cable required improved knowledge of bathymetry (measurement of ocean depth), currents, topography, and bottom sediments. British and American naval ships were instrumental in conducting hydrographic surveys in support of the early attempts to lay a transatlantic cable; the first successful cable was laid in 1866. A watershed expedition made by HMS Challenger in 1872–76 generated thousands of observations in the Atlantic and other ocean basins, culminating in the publication of 50 volumes of data on currents, water depth, temperature, ocean sediments, and animal and plant species. Other important contributions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries include those of Albert I of Monaco and of many Scandinavians, including Bjørn Helland-Hansen and V. Walfrid Ekman. Prince Albert financed a fleet of oceanographic vessels whose efforts led to improved understanding of North Atlantic currents and to the discovery of many new species of mid-depth fishes.
The disaster in 1912 of the Titanic catalyzed research efforts concerned with iceberg flows and current patterns in the North Atlantic, accelerated the development of both radio and sonar, and led to the establishment of the International Ice Patrol. In the field of marine communications, the Italian Guglielmo Marconi was demonstrating his new invention—wireless radio—in Europe and the United States during this period, having used it in 1899 to report from sea the results of the America’s Cup yacht races. In 1925–27 a series of scientific voyages by the research vessel Meteor established Germany as a leader in marine research. Operating in the waters of the South Atlantic, the Meteor traversed the basin 14 times, mapping the seafloor by means of sonar and measuring salinity and temperature distributions at various depths.
The events of World War II had the simultaneous effect of accelerating interest in the physical properties of the deep sea and increasing the willingness of national governments to finance marine science. In the second half of the 20th century, geophysical and acoustical research in the Atlantic basin led to the discovery of oceanic ridge systems, confirmation of the theory of plate tectonics, and knowledge of the periodic reversal of the Earth’s magnetic field. In the 1970s, surveys undertaken by the deep-ocean drilling ship Glomar Challenger provided much evidence to support new theories about the history and formation of the Atlantic basin. The use of robot submarines and manned submersible craft has improved understanding of the pelagic and benthic (bottom-dwelling) organisms of the basin, including communities of organisms living at great depth that rely on bacterial chemosynthesis for food production.
Modern telecommunications systems rely on transatlantic fiber-optic cables, a technology that also promises to revolutionize the study of ocean acoustics and geologic processes below the seafloor. Remote sensing by satellite has allowed researchers to measure temperature and productivity patterns across the entire basin and to track rings of warm water that separate from the Gulf Stream and move into colder regimes, carrying with them distinct physical and biological signatures. Oceanwide circulation dynamics, air-sea interactions, and large-scale marine ecosystem processes have been among the topics at the core of some of the most recent Atlantic research.
The North Atlantic has been the location of active research on climate oscillations at various timescales. It has long been known that climate changes may occur over long time periods (6,000 to 12,000 years). Such variations are thought to be attributable to the Milankovitch cycle, which describes changes in the path of the Earth around the Sun. Research in the North Atlantic has also yielded evidence for shorter, millennial-scale climate oscillations. Studies of the frequency of rock deposited on the seafloor by icebergs have recorded variations in the size of sediment grains that provide evidence of changes in seafloor currents, and observed levels of the carbonate content of subtropical sediments have pointed to cycles of little ice ages occurring roughly every 1,000 to 2,000 years. The cause of these millennial-scale climate oscillations has yet to be determined, but theories include variations in solar activity (sunspots) and regular variations in the salinity of seawater leading to changes in North Atlantic current patterns.
Scientific research on continental shelf sediments from the western North Atlantic provides one explanation for the warming of the Earth during a period of up to 100,000 years roughly 55 million years ago. This period, known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), was characterized by an increase in atmospheric and oceanic temperatures, the appearance of many orders of mammals in the fossil record, and the extinction or temporary disappearance of many deep-sea species. According to the gas hydrate dissociation (or “methane burp”) hypothesis, the PETM was triggered when large deposits of methane hydrates in ocean sediments were warmed to the point at which methane was released through the ocean and into the atmosphere in large quantities. The methane then oxidized, forming carbon dioxide, which in turn led to atmospheric warming—perhaps not unlike the global warming being observed in the 21st century. Large-scale submarine landslides discovered off the coast of Florida have lent significant support to the hypothesis, although such landslides would have had to occur in many additional locations to provide enough methane to cause the PETM.
Atmospheric research has indicated that the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO)—the periodic pressure changes over the North Atlantic—may have a greater influence over climate in North America and Europe than the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO; a Pacific climatic phenomenon). The period of NAO is less regular, however, making it less predictable than its southern counterpart. Although the cause of the NAO is yet unknown, one hypothesis has linked its decadal shifts to the movement of water masses of variable temperature and salinity through the subpolar gyre in the North Atlantic. Some researchers believe that determining the cause of the NAO may enable long-term climate forecasting for Europe and other areas.
Original article: Atlantic Ocean Floor
This was a very detailed article.