Movement in Earth’s oceans is driven by a complicated interplay of many factors like temperature, salinity, and Earth’s rotation. Above are results from a numerical simulation of the top 100 meters of ocean contained within a 1 km x 1 km box. The colors indicate surface temperature. Two major processes create the motion we see. The first is convection, in which water at the surface releases heat to the atmosphere and cools, causing it to then sink due to its greater density. Warmer water rises to replace it. This process happens quickly and dominates the early part of the simulation where we see the puffy convection cells shown on the left animation.
A slower process is in effect as well. Because of variations in the water temperature, the density of the fluid at a given depth is not constant. We can already see that at the water surface, where the temperature (and thus density) is varying significantly. Those variations in density at the same depth combined with gravity’s tendency to shift fluids create what is known as a baroclinic instability. Put simply, this instability will cause warmer water to slide horizontally past colder water. The result is the large, spinning eddy motion seen in the animation on the right. To see how the whole system develops, check out the full video below. (Image/video credit: J. Callies)