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Oceanographically a basin is defined as a depression that is filled with sea water and that is partially separated by land or submarine

barriers from the open ocean, with which horizontal communication is restricted to depths less than the greatest depths in the basin. The maximum depth of an entrance from the open ocean to a basin is called the threshold depth, or the sill depth, of that entrance. By “entrance” is understood a depression in a barrier which limits the basin, and it is immaterial whether or not any part of the barrier rises above sea level. The water in the basin is in more or less restricted horizontal communication with the adjacent sea at all levels above that of the lowest sill depth, but below the sill depth renewal of the water in the basin can take place by vertical motion only. It is therefore characteristic of all basins that below the sill depth the water is nearly uniform and approximately of the same character as the water at the sill depth. Other characteristics of the water below sill depth, which will be called the basin water, depend greatly upon the type of exchange of water with the open ocean.

Basins with Outflow Across the Sill. In nearly closed basins in the semiarid regions of lower latitudes, evaporation greatly exceeds precipitation and run-off, and the salinity of the surface water is increased above that of the adjacent open ocean. The evaporation is at a maximum in winter when the surface temperature is simultaneously lowered under the influence of cold continental winds. In winter the surface density is therefore increased so much that vertical convection currents are developed which, in some years when extreme conditions exist, may reach to the greatest depth and bring about renewal of the bottom water. The basin water which is formed in this manner, owing to its very high salinity, will be of greater density than the water at the same depth outside the sill, and must therefore flow out over the sill, following the bottom slope. At some higher level the oceanic water must flow into the basin, partly to compensate for the outflow and partly to compensate for the excess of evaporation over precipitation and run-off. The Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, and the inner part of the Gulf of California represent examples of such basins.

In basins of this character the basin water is always characterised by high salinity and generally by high oxygen content. The amounts of inflow and outflow depend upon the difference between evaporation and precipitation and run-off, and the volumes of in- and outflowing water are many times greater than the excess of evaporation. Under stationary conditions the total amount of water which in a given time, Ti, flows into a region must equal the sum of the outflow, Tu, and the difference, D, between evaporation over precipitation and run-off in the same time: Ti = Tu + D. Simultaneously, the amounts of salt carried by the in- and outflowing currents must be equal. In the first approximation (p. 426) formula [Equation] where formula [Equation] is the average salinity of the inflowing water and formula [Equation] is the average salinity of the outflowing water. From these relations one obtains

In basins of this character the inflowing water, which comes from the adjacent open sea, has a relatively high salinity, and therefore the difference, Su − Si, is small. Consequently, the volumes of in- and outflowing water must be great compared to the excess of evaporation over precipitation.

The above considerations are valid only if the entrance is sufficiently wide or deep to permit both inflow and outflow. The Gulf of Kara-Bugaz, on the Caspian Sea, represents an example of a basin which is in such restricted communication with a larger body of water that outflow is practically impossible. This gulf is separated from the Caspian Sea by a 60-mile-long bar and has a shallow entrance which is only a few hundred meters wide. The outflow of the saline deep water is so greatly impeded that, owing to excess evaporation, the salinity of that water in 1902 was 164 ‰ as compared with 12.7 ‰ for the Caspian Sea as a whole.


(A) Basin with local formation of basin water and outflow across the sill. (B) Basin with surface outflow of water of low density and occasional renewal of the basin water by inflow of dense water across the sill.

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Conditions are encountered which vary from this extreme case to cases in which the excess evaporation for the entire year is zero, but in which seasonal changes may be large enough to permit occasional development of vertical convection currents reaching to the bottom. The essential features to be emphasized is that in basins of this type renewal of the basin water takes place by vertical convection currents which develop in the basin itself and may reach from surface to bottom. Therefore, the water at and below the sill depth has a higher density than the water at sill depth outside the basin, and is not stagnant.

Basins with Inflow Across the Sill. In the nearly closed basins in higher latitudes, precipitation and run-off exceed evaporation. In such basins a surface layer of low salinity and correspondingly low density is developed. Because of the excess of precipitation and run-off there must be a surface outflow of relatively fresh water, and in order to maintain the salt balance there must be an inflow of more saline water.


The exchange of water with the outside sea is small because the difference, formula [Equation], is great. If the difference is so great that the ratio formula [Equation] is small compared to unity, the relations that are represented by equation (IV, 6) are reduced to

where D now means the excess of precipitation and run-off over evaporation. In these circumstances the inflow is only a small fraction of this excess, and the outflow practically equals the excess.

In basins of this type, stagnant water is often found because renewal of the basin water takes place only if the inflowing water is of greater density than the basin water. Outside the sill the density of the water generally increases much more rapidly with depth than it does inside the sill. Renewal of the basin water takes place if the outside water masses are raised so much that the water which flows in across the sill is of such high density that it sinks toward the bottom of the basin. Fig. 37 shows schematically the character of the exchange with the outside and the renewal of the basin water in the two types of basins.

The rapidity of the renewal of the deep water in the basin depends upon the steepness of the vertical density gradient at the sill depth. If this gradient is steep, an occasional large disturbance fills the basin below sill depth with water of great density, and subsequent disturbances must be as great or greater in order to bring about renewal of the basin water. In extreme cases renewal takes place only by major catastrophes. In the intervals between such catastrophes the basin water may become stagnant, because in the upper layers of stable stratification vertical mixing is insignificant. Some mixing takes place, however, which, between major disturbances, reduces the density of the basin water so much that complete renewal can take place when a new catastrophe occurs.

On the other hand, if the density gradient at the sill depth is small, the outside deep water is brought over the sill by any minor disturbance, and stagnation is prevented by intermittent intrusion of outside deep water, and also by vertical mixing, which is more effective owing to the small density gradient.

The water which sinks at sill depth is heated adiabatically, and the basin water is therefore of nearly constant potential temperature. The effective sill depth—that is, the depth at which the potential temperature in the outside water equals that in the basin—is lower on an average than the actual depth of the sill (table 87, p. 738), and the smaller the density gradient in the outside water, the greater is the difference between the effective and the actual sill depth. Great density gradients, if present, are always found near the surface, and a basin with inflow at

sill depth is therefore likely to have stagnant water if the sill is shallow. The Black Sea, the Baltic, and numerous Norwegian fjords are examples of basins of this type (Fleming and Revelle, 1939, Ström, 1936).

The sill depth has bearing also on the direction of flow across the sill, and this direction does not therefore depend exclusively on an excess or a deficit of evaporation, which was used to facilitate the discussion. At small sill depths an excess or deficit of evaporation determines the character of the exchange, but at great sill depths inflow across the sill develops in most instances. Oceanic water flows freely in and out of the basin at some distance above the sill depth, but at the sill depth the average flow is directed, as a rule, into the basin, because the density of the basin water remains lower than that of the outside water, owing to more effective vertical mixing in a restricted region. The main in- and outflow takes place, however, at lesser depths, the water often flowing in through one entrance and out through another. The basins of the American Mediterranean Sea serve as examples (p. 639).

In large basins in high latitudes, such as the Norwegian Sea and Baffin Bay, deep water is formed locally, owing to freezing or excessive cooling of high-salinity water, although precipitation exceeds evaporation. In such basins, which might be listed as a third type, stagnating water is not found.

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