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File:Sea water Virgo.jpg

Seawater in the Strait of Malacca

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% (35 g/L, or 599 mM). This means that every kilogram (roughly one litre by volume) of seawater has approximately 35 grams (Template:Convert/oz)Template:Convert/test/A of dissolved salts (predominantly sodium (Na+) and chloride (Cl-) ions). Average density at the surface is 1.025 g/ml. Seawater is denser than both fresh water and pure water (density 1.0 g/ml @ Template:Convert/CTemplate:Convert/test/A) because the dissolved salts add mass without contributing significantly to the volume. The freezing point of seawater decreases as salt concentration increases. At typical salinity it freezes at about Template:Convert/CTemplate:Convert/test/A.[1] The coldest seawater ever recorded (in a liquid state) was in 2010, in a stream under an Antarctic glacier, and measured Template:Convert/CTemplate:Convert/test/A.[2]


The thermal conductivity of seawater is 0.6 W/mK at 25 °C and a salinity of 35 g/kg.[3] The thermal conductivity decreases with increasing salinity and increases with increasing temperature.[4]


Main article: Salinity
File:WOA09 sea-surf SAL AYool.png

Annual mean sea surface salinity for the World Ocean. Data from the World Ocean Atlas[5]

File:Water salinity diagram.png


Although the vast majority of seawater has a salinity of between 3.1% and 3.8%, seawater is not uniformly saline throughout the world. Where mixing occurs with fresh water runoff from river mouths or near melting glaciers, seawater can be substantially less saline. The most saline open sea is the Red Sea, where high rates of evaporation, low precipitation and river inflow, and confined circulation result in unusually salty water. The salinity in isolated bodies of water (for example, the Dead Sea) can be considerably greater still. (Diagram at lower right shows comparison in parts per thousand)

The density of surface seawater ranges from about 1,020 to 1,029 kg·m−3, depending on the temperature and salinity. Deep in the ocean, under high pressure, seawater can reach a density of 1,050 kg·m−3 or higher. Seawater pH is limited to the range 7.5 to 8.4. The speed of sound in seawater is about 1,500 m/s, and varies with water temperature, salinity, and pressure.

Seawater composition (by mass) (salinity = 3.5)
Element Percent Element Percent
Oxygen 85.84 Sulfur 0.091
Hydrogen 10.82 Calcium 0.04
Chloride 1.94 Potassium 0.04
Sodium 1.08 Bromine 0.0067
Magnesium 0.1292 Carbon 0.0028

Human impacts

Climate change, rising atmospheric carbon dioxide, excess nutrients, and pollution in many forms are altering global oceanic geochemistry. Rates of change for some aspects greatly exceed those in the historical and recent geological record. Major trends include an increasing acidity, reduced subsurface oxygen in both near-shore and pelagic waters, rising coastal nitrogen levels, and widespread increases in mercury and persistent organic pollutants. Most of these perturbations are tied either directly or indirectly to human fossil fuel combustion, fertilizer use, and industrial activity. Concentrations are projected to grow in coming decades, with negative impacts on ocean biota and other marine resources.[6]

Compositional differences from freshwater

Seawater contains more dissolved ions than all types of freshwater.[7] However, the ratios of solutes differ dramatically. For instance, although seawater contains about 2.8 times more bicarbonate than river water based on molarity, the percentage of bicarbonate in seawater as a ratio of all dissolved ions is far lower than in river water. Bicarbonate ions also constitute 48% of river water solutes but only 0.14% of all seawater ions.[7][8] Differences like these are due to the varying residence times of seawater solutes; sodium and chlorine have very long residence times, while calcium (vital for carbonate formation) tends to precipitate much more quickly.[8] The most abundant dissolved ions in seawater are sodium, chloride, magnesium, sulfate and calcium.[9]


File:Sea salt-e-dp hg.svg

Diagram showing concentrations of various salt ions in seawater: Cl- 55%, Na+ 30.6%, SO2-4 7.7%, Mg2+ 3.7%, Ca2+ 1.2%, K+ 1.1%, Other 0.7%. Note that the diagram is only correct in units of wt/wt, not wt/vol or vol/vol.

Total Molar Composition of Seawater (Salinity = 35)[10]
Component Concentration (mol/kg)
H2O 53.6
Cl- 0.546
Na+ 0.469
Mg2+ 0.0528
SO2-4 0.0282
Ca2+ 0.0103
K+ 0.0102
CT 0.00206
Br- 0.000844
BT 0.000416
Sr2+ 0.000091
F- 0.000068

Human consumption

Main article: Desalinization

Accidentally consuming small quantities of clean seawater is not harmful, especially if the seawater is taken along with a larger quantity of fresh water. However, drinking seawater to maintain hydration is counterproductive; more water must be excreted to eliminate the salt (via urine) than the amount of water from the seawater itself.[11]

The renal system actively regulates sodium chloride in the blood within a very narrow range around 9 g/L (0.9% by weight).

In most open waters concentrations vary somewhat around typical values of about 3.5%, far higher than the body can tolerate and most beyond what the kidney can process. A point frequently overlooked, in claims that the kidney can excrete NaCl in Baltic concentrations (2%), is that the gut cannot absorb water at such concentrations, so that there is no benefit in drinking such water. Drinking seawater temporarily increases blood’s NaCl concentration. This signals the kidney to excrete sodium, but seawater’s sodium concentration is above the kidney’s maximum concentrating ability. Eventually the blood’s sodium concentration rises to toxic levels, removing water from cells and interfering with nerve conduction, ultimately producing fatal seizure and heart arrhythmia.[citation needed]

Survival manuals consistently advise against drinking seawater.[12] A summary of 163 life raft voyages estimated the risk of death at 39% for those who drank seawater, compared to 3% for those who did not. The effect of seawater intake on rats confirmed the negative effects of drinking seawater when dehydrated.[13] However the regulation of the uptake of seawater salts may be possible through the colon. The mother of the Robertson family who were castaway for 38 days in 1972, proposed the feasibility of hydration through unpotable water enemas.[citation needed]

The temptation to drink seawater was greatest for sailors who had expended their supply of fresh water, and were unable to capture enough rainwater for drinking. This frustration was described famously by a line from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:

Water, water, everywhere,Template:BreakAnd all the boards did shrink;Template:BreakWater, water, everywhere,Template:BreakNor any drop to drink.

Although humans cannot survive on seawater, some people claim that up to two cups a day, mixed with fresh water in a 2:3 ratio, produces no ill effect. The French physician Alain Bombard survived an ocean crossing in a small Zodiak rubber boat using mainly raw fish meat, which contains about 40 percent water (like most living tissues), as well as small amounts of seawater and other provisions harvested from the ocean. His findings were challenged, but an alternative explanation was not given. In Kon-Tiki, Thor Heyerdahl reported drinking seawater mixed with fresh in a 40/60% ratio. A few years later another adventurer named William Willis claimed to have drunk two cups of seawater and one cup of fresh per day for 70 days without ill effect when he lost part of his water supply.[14]

During the 18th Century, Richard Russell advocated the practice's medical use in the UK, and René Quinton expanded the advocation of the practice other countries, notably France, in the 20th century. Currently, the practice is widely used in Nicaragua and other countries, supposedly taking advantage of the latest medical discoveries.

Most ocean-going vessels desalinate potable water from seawater using processes such as vacuum distillation or multi-stage flash distillation in an evaporator, or more recently by reverse osmosis. These energy-intensive processes were not usually available during the Age of Sail. Larger sailing warships with large crews, such as Nelson's Template:HMS were fitted with distilling apparati in their galleys.[15]

Other land and marine animals such as fish, whales, sea turtles, penguins and others can adapt to a high saline habitat. For example, the kidney of the desert rat can concentrate sodium far more efficiently than the human kidney.[citation needed]


ASTM International had defined an international standard for making artificial seawater: ASTM D1141-98. It is used in many research testing labs as a reproducible solution for seawater such as tests on corrosion, oil contamination, and detergency evaluation.[16]

See also

  • Freshwater
  • Saline water
  • Salinity
  • Sea salt
  • Seawater pH
  • Thermohaline circulation
  • CORA dataset global ocean salinity

External links


  1. U.S. Office of Naval Research Ocean, Water: Temperature.
  2. Sylte, Gudrun Urd. Den aller kaldaste havstraumen. URL accessed on May 24, 2010.
  3. Desalination and Water Treatment. aDepartment of Mechanical Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. URL accessed on 17 October 2010.
  4. Thermal conductivity of seawater and its concentrates. URL accessed on 17 October 2010.
  5. World Ocean Atlas 2009. NOAA. URL accessed on 05 December 2012.
  6. Doney, Scott C. (June 18, 2010). The Growing Human Footprint on Coastal and Open-Ocean Biogeochemistry. Science Magazine 328 (5985): 1512–1516.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Gale, Thomson Ocean Chemical Processes. URL accessed on December 2, 2006.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Pinet, Paul R. (1996). Invitation to Oceanography, 126, 134–135, St. Paul: West Publishing Company.
  9. C. Michael Hogan. 2010. Calcium. eds. A. Jorgensen, C. Cleveland. Encyclopedia of Earth. National Council for Science and the Environment.
  10. DOE (1994). Handbook of methods for the analysis of the various parameters of the carbon dioxide system in sea water.
  11. Ask A Scientist. Biology Archive.
  12. Shipboard Medicine. URL accessed on 17 October 2010.
  13. Etzion and Yagil (1987;86(1)). Metabolic effects in rats drinking increasing concentrations of seawater.. Comp Biochem Physiol A. 86 (1): 49–55.
  14. King, Dean (2004). Skeletons on the Zahara: a true story of survival, New York: Back Bay Books.
  15. Rippon, Commander P.M., RN (1998). The evolution of engineering in the Royal Navy, 78–79, Spellmount.
  16. ASTM D1141-98(2013). ASTM. URL accessed on 2013-08-17.
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