RECORD: S214. Wallace, A. R. 1872. Ocean circulation. Nature 6: 328-329.

REVISION HISTORY: Body text helpfully provided by Charles H. Smith from his Alfred Russel Wallace Page

[page] 328

Ocean Circulation

Although no mathematician, and only an amateur in physics, it appears to me that the difficulties and objections of Mr. Croll on this subject may be obviated, and the whole question elucidated by a reference to the admitted facts, and a common sense interpretation of them. And first, as to the fact that the surface water of the Atlantic Ocean, in moving northwards from the equator to 60° lat., has almost wholly lost the easterly motion of rotation it should have brought with it. This loss is imputed by Mr. Croll to friction only, and he argues that the much lower velocity of the northward current must, therefore, be wholly neutralised by friction. This is his main argument, which he has repeatedly adduced, and to which he has hitherto received no reply. But, although his reasoning might be admitted if the conditions affecting the two motions were the same, it seems to me to be quite inapplicable to the present case. If, in the temperate zone, the ocean extended uninterruptedly in an east and west direction round the globe, it would no doubt retain a considerable portion of the equatorial eastern motion, and whatever deficiency existed might fairly be imputed to friction. But the Atlantic is actually like a huge lake, with continuous eastern and western shores, and the water which flows northwards along the eastern shore is prevented from moving eastwards, not by friction against water or even against the shore, but by having to perform work in lifting or heaping up the water against the shore, just as the water of a pond or lake is heaped up on the leeward side by a strong wind. As the direction of the motion of the water will, however, by the hypothesis, be oblique or somewhat north of east, some of the motion will be diverted northwards along the eastern shore, and thus tend to increase the northerly flow. The 9,925 pounds of energy (according to Mr. Croll) are not therefore consumed in overcoming the frictional resistance to eastward motion, but for the most part in doing the actual work of overcoming gravitation and holding up the waters at a higher level, and the theoretical amount of this rise can, no doubt, be easily calculated for us by Mr. Croll.

The case of the water moving northward is very different.

[page] 329

There is a clear passage into the polar area, and probably up to and beyond the pole; and within this area there is a continual diminution of bulk of the entering water as it becomes cooled, as well as a continual subsidence of the surface water, producing a partial depression to be constantly filled by water from the south. Experiment proves that if at one end of a vessel of warm water ice is applied at the surface, the cooled water instantly sinks, and its place is taken, not by water rising upwards from below, but by a horizontal movement of the surface gradually propagated to the other end of the vessel, while the descending cold water creeps along the bottom, and gradually acquiring a higher temperature, rises and completes the circuit. It is somewhat difficult to conceive, theoretically, how such a circulation can commence, because the cooled atoms of water must displace others before they can descend, and these again must displace others, and so on over the whole mass. The amount of energy due to the superior weight of the first-cooled atoms may appear inadequate to perform so much work, but nevertheless circulation does commence and indefinitely continues so long as a difference of temperature of the two ends of the vessel is kept up. The extreme mobility of the particles of water, and the almost total absence of friction between them, seems to be influential in producing this result; and it is not probable that any minute difference of level that may be caused on the surface of the water by difference of temperature has anything to do with the motion; and I cannot help thinking that the supposed six-feet incline from the equator to lat. 60° is, if it exists, by no means an effective cause of the oceanic circulation.

Alfred R. Wallace

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Citation: John van Wyhe, ed. 2012-. Wallace Online. (

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