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Annual mean sea surface salinity for the World Ocean. Data from the World Ocean Atlas 2009. WOA09 sea-surf SAL AYool.png
Annual mean sea surface salinity for the World Ocean. Data from the World Ocean Atlas 2009.
International Association for the Physical Sciences of the Oceans (IAPSO) standard seawater. IAPSO Standard Seawater.jpg
International Association for the Physical Sciences of the Oceans (IAPSO) standard seawater.

Salinity ( /səˈlɪnɪti/ ) is the saltiness or amount of salt dissolved in a body of water, called saline water (see also soil salinity). It is usually measured in g/L or g/kg (grams of salt per liter/kilogram of water; the latter is dimensionless and equal to ‰).


Salinity is an important factor in determining many aspects of the chemistry of natural waters and of biological processes within it, and is a thermodynamic state variable that, along with temperature and pressure, governs physical characteristics like the density and heat capacity of the water.

A contour line of constant salinity is called an isohaline, or sometimes isohale.


Salinity in rivers, lakes, and the ocean is conceptually simple, but technically challenging to define and measure precisely. Conceptually the salinity is the quantity of dissolved salt content of the water. Salts are compounds like sodium chloride, magnesium sulfate, potassium nitrate, and sodium bicarbonate which dissolve into ions. The concentration of dissolved chloride ions is sometimes referred to as chlorinity. Operationally, dissolved matter is defined as that which can pass through a very fine filter (historically a filter with a pore size of 0.45 μm, but nowadays[ when? ] usually 0.2 μm). [2] Salinity can be expressed in the form of a mass fraction, i.e. the mass of the dissolved material in a unit mass of solution.

Seawater typically has a mass salinity of around 35 g/kg, although lower values are typical near coasts where rivers enter the ocean. Rivers and lakes can have a wide range of salinities, from less than 0.01 g/kg [3] to a few g/kg, although there are many places where higher salinities are found. The Dead Sea has a salinity of more than 200 g/kg. [4] Precipitation typically has a TDS of 20 mg/kg or less. [5]

Whatever pore size is used in the definition, the resulting salinity value of a given sample of natural water will not vary by more than a few percent (%). Physical oceanographers working in the abyssal ocean, however, are often concerned with precision and intercomparability of measurements by different researchers, at different times, to almost five significant digits. [6] A bottled seawater product known as IAPSO Standard Seawater is used by oceanographers to standardize their measurements with enough precision to meet this requirement.


Measurement and definition difficulties arise because natural waters contain a complex mixture of many different elements from different sources (not all from dissolved salts) in different molecular forms. The chemical properties of some of these forms depend on temperature and pressure. Many of these forms are difficult to measure with high accuracy, and in any case complete chemical analysis is not practical when analyzing multiple samples. Different practical definitions of salinity result from different attempts to account for these problems, to different levels of precision, while still remaining reasonably easy to use.

For practical reasons salinity is usually related to the sum of masses of a subset of these dissolved chemical constituents (so-called solution salinity), rather than to the unknown mass of salts that gave rise to this composition (an exception is when artificial seawater is created). For many purposes this sum can be limited to a set of eight major ions in natural waters, [7] [8] although for seawater at highest precision an additional seven minor ions are also included. [6] The major ions dominate the inorganic composition of most (but by no means all) natural waters. Exceptions include some pit lakes and waters from some hydrothermal springs.

The concentrations of dissolved gases like oxygen and nitrogen are not usually included in descriptions of salinity. [2] However, carbon dioxide gas, which when dissolved is partially converted into carbonates and bicarbonates, is often included. Silicon in the form of silicic acid, which usually appears as a neutral molecule in the pH range of most natural waters, may also be included for some purposes (e.g., when salinity/density relationships are being investigated).


Full 3 minute NASA video Feb 27,2013 The NASA Aquarius instrument aboard Argentina's SAC-D satellite is designed to measure global sea surface salinity. This movie shows salinity patterns as measured by Aquarius from December 2011 through December 2012. Red colors represent areas of high salinity, while blue shades represent areas of low salinity.

The term 'salinity' is, for oceanographers, usually associated with one of a set of specific measurement techniques. As the dominant techniques evolve, so do different descriptions of salinity. Salinities were largely measured using titration-based techniques before the 1980s. Titration with silver nitrate could be used to determine the concentration of halide ions (mainly chlorine and bromine) to give a chlorinity. The chlorinity was then multiplied by a factor to account for all other constituents. The resulting 'Knudsen salinities' are expressed in units of parts per thousand (ppt or ).

The use of electrical conductivity measurements to estimate the ionic content of seawater led to the development of the scale called the practical salinity scale 1978 (PSS-78). [9] [10] Salinities measured using PSS-78 do not have units. The suffix psu or PSU (denoting practical salinity unit) is sometimes added to PSS-78 measurement values. [11] The addition of PSU as a unit after the value is "formally incorrect and strongly discouraged". [2]

In 2010 a new standard for the properties of seawater called the thermodynamic equation of seawater 2010 (TEOS-10) was introduced, advocating absolute salinity as a replacement for practical salinity, and conservative temperature as a replacement for potential temperature. [6] This standard includes a new scale called the reference composition salinity scale. Absolute salinities on this scale are expressed as a mass fraction, in grams per kilogram of solution. Salinities on this scale are determined by combining electrical conductivity measurements with other information that can account for regional changes in the composition of seawater. They can also be determined by making direct density measurements.

A sample of seawater from most locations with a chlorinity of 19.37 ppt will have a Knudsen salinity of 35.00 ppt, a PSS-78 practical salinity of about 35.0, and a TEOS-10 absolute salinity of about 35.2 g/kg. The electrical conductivity of this water at a temperature of 15 °C is 42.9 mS/cm. [6] [12]

On the global scale, it is extremely likely that human-caused climate change has contributed to observed surface and subsurface salinity changes since the 1950s, and projections of surface salinity changes throughout the 21st century indicate that fresh ocean regions will continue to get fresher and salty regions will continue to get saltier. [13]

Lakes and rivers

Limnologists and chemists often define salinity in terms of mass of salt per unit volume, expressed in units of mg/L or g/L. [7] It is implied, although often not stated, that this value applies accurately only at some reference temperature because solution volume varies with temperature. Values presented in this way are typically accurate to the order of 1%. Limnologists also use electrical conductivity, or "reference conductivity", as a proxy for salinity. This measurement may be corrected for temperature effects, and is usually expressed in units of μS/cm.

A river or lake water with a salinity of around 70 mg/L will typically have a specific conductivity at 25 °C of between 80 and 130 μS/cm. The actual ratio depends on the ions present. [14] The actual conductivity usually changes by about 2% per degree Celsius, so the measured conductivity at 5 °C might only be in the range of 50–80 μS/cm.

Direct density measurements are also used to estimate salinities, particularly in highly saline lakes. [4] Sometimes density at a specific temperature is used as a proxy for salinity. At other times an empirical salinity/density relationship developed for a particular body of water is used to estimate the salinity of samples from a measured density.

Water salinity
Fresh water Brackish water Saline water Brine
< 0.05%0.05 – 3%3 – 5%> 5%
< 0.5 ‰0.5 – 30 ‰30 – 50 ‰> 50 ‰

Classification of water bodies based upon salinity

Thalassic series
> 300 ‰
60–80 ‰
40 ‰
30 ‰
18 ‰
5 ‰
0.5 ‰

Marine waters are those of the ocean, another term for which is euhaline seas. The salinity of euhaline seas is 30 to 35 ‰. Brackish seas or waters have salinity in the range of 0.5 to 29 ‰ and metahaline seas from 36 to 40 ‰. These waters are all regarded as thalassic because their salinity is derived from the ocean and defined as homoiohaline if salinity does not vary much over time (essentially constant). The table on the right, modified from Por (1972), [15] [16] follows the "Venice system" (1959). [17]

In contrast to homoiohaline environments are certain poikilohaline environments (which may also be thalassic) in which the salinity variation is biologically significant. [18] Poikilohaline water salinities may range anywhere from 0.5 to greater than 300 ‰. The important characteristic is that these waters tend to vary in salinity over some biologically meaningful range seasonally or on some other roughly comparable time scale. Put simply, these are bodies of water with quite variable salinity.

Highly saline water, from which salts crystallize (or are about to), is referred to as brine.

Environmental considerations

Salinity is an ecological factor of considerable importance, influencing the types of organisms that live in a body of water. As well, salinity influences the kinds of plants that will grow either in a water body, or on land fed by a water (or by a groundwater). [19] A plant adapted to saline conditions is called a halophyte. A halophyte which is tolerant to residual sodium carbonate salinity are called glasswort or saltwort or barilla plants. Organisms (mostly bacteria) that can live in very salty conditions are classified as extremophiles, or halophiles specifically. An organism that can withstand a wide range of salinities is euryhaline.

Salts are expensive to remove from water, and salt content is an important factor in water use, factoring into potability and suitability for irrigation. Increases in salinity have been observed in lakes and rivers in the United States, due to common road salt and other salt de-icers in runoff. [20]

The degree of salinity in oceans is a driver of the world's ocean circulation, where density changes due to both salinity changes and temperature changes at the surface of the ocean produce changes in buoyancy, which cause the sinking and rising of water masses. Changes in the salinity of the oceans are thought to contribute to global changes in carbon dioxide as more saline waters are less soluble to carbon dioxide. In addition, during glacial periods, the hydrography is such that a possible cause of reduced circulation is the production of stratified oceans. In such cases, it is more difficult to subduct water through the thermohaline circulation.

Not only is salinity a driver of ocean circulation, but changes in ocean circulation also affect salinity, particularly in the subpolar North Atlantic where from 1990 to 2010 increased contributions of Greenland meltwater were counteracted by increased northward transport of salty Atlantic waters. [13] [21] [22] [23] However, North Atlantic waters have become fresher since the mid-2010s due to increased Greenland meltwater flux. [13] [24]

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Solubility</span> Capacity of a substance to dissolve in a solvent in a homogeneous way

In chemistry, solubility is the ability of a substance, the solute, to form a solution with another substance, the solvent. Insolubility is the opposite property, the inability of the solute to form such a solution.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Brine</span> Concentrated solution of salt in water

Brine is a high-concentration solution of salt in water. In diverse contexts, brine may refer to the salt solutions ranging from about 3.5% up to about 26%. Brine forms naturally due to evaporation of ground saline water but it is also generated in the mining of sodium chloride. Brine is used for food processing and cooking, for de-icing of roads and other structures, and in a number of technological processes. It is also a by-product of many industrial processes, such as desalination, so it requires wastewater treatment for proper disposal or further utilization.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sodium chloride</span> Chemical compound with formula NaCl

Sodium chloride, commonly known as salt, is an ionic compound with the chemical formula NaCl, representing a 1:1 ratio of sodium and chloride ions. With molar masses of 22.99 and 35.45 g/mol respectively, 100 g of NaCl contains 39.34 g Na and 60.66 g Cl. Sodium chloride is the salt most responsible for the salinity of seawater and of the extracellular fluid of many multicellular organisms. In its edible form, salt is commonly used as a condiment and food preservative. Large quantities of sodium chloride are used in many industrial processes, and it is a major source of sodium and chlorine compounds used as feedstocks for further chemical syntheses. Another major application of sodium chloride is de-icing of roadways in sub-freezing weather.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Seawater</span> Water from a sea or an ocean

Seawater, or salt water, is water from a sea or ocean. On average, seawater in the world's oceans has a salinity of about 3.5%. This means that every kilogram of seawater has approximately 35 grams (1.2 oz) of dissolved salts. The average density at the surface is 1.025 kg/L. Seawater is denser than both fresh water and pure water because the dissolved salts increase the mass by a larger proportion than the volume. The freezing point of seawater decreases as salt concentration increases. At typical salinity, it freezes at about −2 °C (28 °F). The coldest seawater still in the liquid state ever recorded was found in 2010, in a stream under an Antarctic glacier: the measured temperature was −2.6 °C (27.3 °F). Seawater pH is typically limited to a range between 7.5 and 8.4. However, there is no universally accepted reference pH-scale for seawater and the difference between measurements based on different reference scales may be up to 0.14 units.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Thermohaline circulation</span> Part of large-scale ocean circulation

Thermohaline circulation (THC) is a part of the large-scale ocean circulation that is driven by global density gradients created by surface heat and freshwater fluxes. The adjective thermohaline derives from thermo- referring to temperature and -haline referring to salt content, factors which together determine the density of sea water. Wind-driven surface currents travel polewards from the equatorial Atlantic Ocean, cooling en route, and eventually sinking at high latitudes. This dense water then flows into the ocean basins. While the bulk of it upwells in the Southern Ocean, the oldest waters upwell in the North Pacific. Extensive mixing therefore takes place between the ocean basins, reducing differences between them and making the Earth's oceans a global system. The water in these circuits transport both energy and mass around the globe. As such, the state of the circulation has a large impact on the climate of the Earth.

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Paleoceanography is the study of the history of the oceans in the geologic past with regard to circulation, chemistry, biology, geology and patterns of sedimentation and biological productivity. Paleoceanographic studies using environment models and different proxies enable the scientific community to assess the role of the oceanic processes in the global climate by the re-construction of past climate at various intervals. Paleoceanographic research is also intimately tied to paleoclimatology.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Osmotic power</span> Energy available from the difference in the salt concentration between seawater and river water

Osmotic power, salinity gradient power or blue energy is the energy available from the difference in the salt concentration between seawater and river water. Two practical methods for this are reverse electrodialysis (RED) and pressure retarded osmosis (PRO). Both processes rely on osmosis with membranes. The key waste product is brackish water. This byproduct is the result of natural forces that are being harnessed: the flow of fresh water into seas that are made up of salt water.

Reverse osmosis (RO) is a water purification process that uses a partially permeable membrane to separate ions, unwanted molecules and larger particles from drinking water. In reverse osmosis, an applied pressure is used to overcome osmotic pressure, a colligative property that is driven by chemical potential differences of the solvent, a thermodynamic parameter. Reverse osmosis can remove many types of dissolved and suspended chemical species as well as biological ones (principally bacteria) from water, and is used in both industrial processes and the production of potable water. The result is that the solute is retained on the pressurized side of the membrane and the pure solvent is allowed to pass to the other side. To be "selective", this membrane should not allow large molecules or ions through the pores (holes), but should allow smaller components of the solution (such as solvent molecules, e.g., water, H2O) to pass freely.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ocean</span> Body of salt water covering the majority of Earth

The ocean is the body of salt water that covers approximately 70.8% of the surface of Earth and contains 97% of Earth's water. An ocean can also refer to any of the large bodies of water into which the world ocean is conventionally divided. Separate names are used to identify five different areas of the ocean: Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, Southern (Antarctic), and Arctic. Seawater covers approximately 361,000,000 km2 (139,000,000 sq mi) of the planet. The ocean is the principal component of Earth's hydrosphere, and therefore integral to life on Earth. Acting as a huge heat reservoir, the ocean influences climate and weather patterns, the carbon cycle, and the water cycle.

Estuarine water circulation is controlled by the inflow of rivers, the tides, rainfall and evaporation, the wind, and other oceanic events such as an upwelling, an eddy, and storms. Estuarine water circulation patterns are influenced by vertical mixing and stratification, and can affect residence time and exposure time.

Paleosalinity is the salinity of the global ocean or of an ocean basin at a point in geological history.

The ocean temperature varies by depth, geographical location and season. Both the temperature and salinity of ocean water differs. Warm surface water is generally saltier than the cooler deep or polar waters; in polar regions, the upper layers of ocean water are cold and fresh. Deep ocean water is cold, salty water found deep below the surface of Earth's oceans. This water has a very uniform temperature, around 0-3 °C. The ocean temperature also depends on the amount of solar radiation falling on its surface. In the tropics, with the Sun nearly overhead, the temperature of the surface layers can rise to over 30 °C (86 °F) while near the poles the temperature in equilibrium with the sea ice is about −2 °C (28 °F). There is a continuous circulation of water in the oceans. Thermohaline circulation (THC) is a part of the large-scale ocean circulation that is driven by global density gradients created by surface heat and freshwater fluxes. Warm surface currents cool as they move away from the tropics, and the water becomes denser and sinks. The cold water moves back towards the equator as a deep sea current, driven by changes in the temperature and density of the water, before eventually welling up again towards the surface.

The Great Salinity Anomaly (GSA) originally referred to an event in the late 1960s to early 1970s where a large influx of freshwater from the Arctic Ocean led to a salinity anomaly in the northern North Atlantic Ocean, which affected the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation. Since then, the term "Great Salinity Anomaly" has been applied to successive occurrences of the same phenomenon, including the Great Salinity Anomaly of the 1980s and the Great Salinity Anomaly of the 1990s. The Great Salinity Anomalies were advective events, propagating to different sea basins and areas of the North Atlantic, and is on the decadal-scale for the anomalies in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.

Brine rejection is a process that occurs when salty water freezes. The salts do not fit in the crystal structure of water ice, so the salt is expelled.

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Further reading