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Ocean Water: Salinity

Did you ever wonder why the oceans are filled with salt water instead of fresh? Just where did the salt come from? And is it the same salt you find on a dining room table? Most of the salt in the oceans came from land. Over millions of years, rain, rivers, and streams have washed over rocks containing the compound sodium chloride (NaCl), and carried it into the sea. You may know sodium chloride by its common name: table salt! Some of the salt in the oceans comes from undersea volcanoes and hydrothermal vents. When water evaporates from the surface of the ocean, the salt is left behind. After millions of years, the oceans have developed a noticeably salty taste.

Different bodies of water have different amounts of salt mixed in, or different salinities. Salinity is expressed by the amount of salt found in 1,000 grams of water. Therefore, if we have 1 gram of salt and 1,000 grams of water, the salinity is 1 part per thousand, or 1 ppt.

The average ocean salinity is 35 ppt. This number varies between about 32 and 37 ppt. Rainfall, evaporation, river runoff, and ice formation cause the variations. For example, the Black Sea is so diluted by river runoff, its average salinity is only 16 ppt.

Freshwater salinity is usually less than 0.5 ppt. Water between 0.5 ppt and 17 ppt is called brackish. Estuaries (where fresh river water meets salty ocean water) are examples of brackish waters.

Most marine creatures keep the salinity inside their bodies at about the same concentration as the water outside their bodies because water likes a balance. If an animal that usually lives in salt water were placed in fresh water, the fresh water would flow into the animal through its skin. If a fresh water animal found itself in the salty ocean, the water inside of it would rush out. The process by which water flows through a semi-permeable membrane (a material that lets only some things pass through it) such as the animal's skin from an area of high concentration (lots of water, little salt) to an area of low concentration (little water, lots of salt) is called osmosis.

This is also why humans (and nearly all mammals) cannot drink salt water. When you take in those extra salts, your body will need to expel them as quickly as possible. Your kidneys will try to flush the salts out of your body in urine, and in the process pump out more water than you are taking in. Soon you'll be dehydrated and your cells and organs will not be able to function properly.

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