The motion of the ocean

Yesterday, at the Conference on World Affairs, I went to a panel about science and the movies. I'll have more on that later, but I wanted to share this short video recommended by Sidney Perkowitz as an excellent example of how the video medium can be used to allow people to explore and understand their world.

The video is Perpetual Oceans, and it's made by NASA. It shows ocean currents, twisting and turning and undulating around the globe between June of 2005 and December of 2007. There's no narration, just music. The idea is to put into images things that have previously only been words—here is the Gulf Stream, there's the Kuroshio Current. Watching this, you get a better idea of oceans as a system, and it's easy to see how—in the days before steam or gasoline powered engines—where you traveled to and from across the oceans was partly determined by how the ocean moved through that area. It's also important to understanding climate science.

Here's the technical detail from NASA:

This visualization was produced using model output from the joint MIT/JPL project: Estimating the Circulation and Climate of the Ocean, Phase II or ECCO2. ECCO2 uses the MIT general circulation model (MITgcm) to synthesize satellite and in-situ data of the global ocean and sea-ice at resolutions that begin to resolve ocean eddies and other narrow current systems, which transport heat and carbon in the oceans. ECCO2 provides ocean flows at all depths, but only surface flows are used in this visualization.

Video Link


  1. This is great, though they really needed to include colors to show temperature variations as well to be able to see things like el nino/la nina occurring.

  2. Similar formations are in air currents too; a fellow named Van Gogh didn’t need scientific instruments to see it all, he just looked with his artist’s eyes, saw, and painted them, I expect as accurately as NASA could. A point I’ve made ad nauseam over the years: science is smart; art is Wise.

    1. Indeed.  I’m sure we all remember Van Gogh’s “Crows over the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre”.

  3. Id like to see a demonstration of how the moon’s  pull affects the currents.  I wonder how much is caused by the warmer/cooler water interaction of thermohaline circulation how much gravity is responsible for.

  4. Wow, that makes you wonder if ancient mariners had a visceral, intuitive feel for currents; it’s as though their tales of giant whirlpools weren’t so fantastic after all.

    It is cool to see all those famed currents, but I was surprised I couldn’t find the Pacific Gyre, the place all the plastic goes to live forever.

  5. This is a great video. In 3 minutes one can see how the “discovery” of the Americas by Europeans was inevitable, how The Triangle Trade was made possible and see support for Thor Hayerdahl’s theory of migration to Polynesia. And that was just the first pass. Truly wonderful.

  6. Wait a minute, hold the phone. Maggie, you attended “the Conference on World Affairs”? How cool is that? It’s almost better than celebrity name-dropping. Compare

    “Oh, sorry, I can’t meet you for lunch on Thursday; I’m attending the Conference on World Affairs


    “Oh, I was talking the other day with Buzz Aldrin and he said…”

    Both pretty flashy. Which one affords greater status? (Esp. if we replace Aldrin with Brad Pitt or Beyoncé or some other mere mortal.)

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