Main Arctic Currents

The main currents in the Arctic

The Arctic surface waters extend to a depth of about 46 meters, and are far less salty than the waters below. The deeper Arctic waters near the ocean floor are very salty and therefore quite dense, and so do not flow readily. Generally, the surface waters of the Arctic Ocean circulate in a large clockwise rotational pattern moving from east to west around the polar ice cap. This rotating pattern, known as a gyre, occurs as a result of the clockwise winds that typically occur in this region. Only surface waters are exchanged via ocean currents because towering submarine ridges prevent the exchange of very deep waters. The lack of movement in the deep waters has caused a stagnant pool of very cold water to accumulate at the bottom of the Arctic Basin.

Known as the Beaufort Gyre, the Arctic current slowly swirls the surface waters of the Arctic basin, turning the Polar Ice Cap along with it, making one complete rotation about every 4 years. The other predominant current in the Arctic Ocean, the transpolar drift stream, carries water and ice from Siberia, across the pole and down the east coast of Greenland, joining the East Greenland current. This current flows in response to input from Siberian rivers, and a predominant westerly wind that pushes Arctic surface water eastward into the Atlantic.

Within the Barents Sea, a smaller gyre flows in a counterclockwise direction, with warmer Atlantic waters from the south mixing with colder Arctic waters in the north. This counterclockwise movement occurs in response to a counterclockwise wind system that moves across the Barents Sea. The Barents Sea current is generally weak and variable, as are the equivalent gyres that occur in the Norwegian and Greenland Seas. An additional current, the West Greenland Current, dominates the waters off the coast of Greenland, south of Davis Strait. As the West Greenland current approaches Davis Strait, it joins the Labrador Current, and then continues northward into Baffin Bay where it cools down dramatically.