Atlantic Ocean

Atlantic Ocean [Lat.,=of Atlas], second largest ocean (c.31,800,000 sq mi/82,362,000 sq km; c.36,000,000 sq mi/93,240,000 sq km with marginal seas).

Physical Geography

Extent and Seas

The Atlantic Ocean extends in an S shape from the arctic to the antarctic regions between North and South America on the west and Europe and Africa on the east. It is connected with the Arctic Ocean by the Greenland Sea and Smith Sound; with the Pacific Ocean by Drake Passage, the Straits of Magellan, and the Panama Canal; and with the Indian Ocean by the Suez Canal and the expanse between Africa and Antarctica. The shortest distance across the Atlantic Ocean (c.1,600 mi/2,575 km) is between SW Senegal, W Africa, and NE Brazil, E South America. The principal arms of the Atlantic Ocean are Hudson and Baffin bays, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean Sea in the west; the Baltic, North, Mediterranean, and Black seas in the east; and the Weddell Sea in the south. More large rivers, including the Mississippi, the Congo, and the Amazon, drain into the Atlantic than into any other ocean.


The Atlantic has relatively few islands, with the greatest concentration found in the Caribbean region. Most of the islands are structurally part of the continents, such as the British Isles, Falkland Islands, Canary Islands, and Newfoundland. Iceland, the Azores, the islands of Cape Verde, Ascension, the South Sandwich Islands, the West Indies, and Bermuda are exposed tops of submarine ridges. The Bahamas are low coral islands that sit on the Blake Plateau, while the Madeiras are high volcanic islands.

Ocean Floor

The floor of the Atlantic has an average depth of c.12,000 ft (3,660 m). It is separated from that of the Arctic Ocean by a submarine ridge extending from SE Greenland to N Scotland; part of the floor (c.3,000 ft/910 m deep) is known as "telegraph plateau" because of the network of cables laid there. A shallow submarine ridge across the Strait of Gibraltar separates the Mediterranean basin from the Atlantic and limits the exchange of water between the two bodies. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge (c.300–600 mi/480–970 km wide), a submarine mountain range extending c.10,000 mi (16,100 km) from Iceland to near the Antarctic Circle, generally follows the trend of the coastlines of the continents. It rises to an average height of c.10,000 ft (3,050 m), and a few peaks emerge as islands. The ridge, which is the center of volcanic activity and earthquakes, has a great rift that is constantly widening (see seafloor spreading) and filling with molten rock from the earth's interior. As a result the Western Hemisphere and Europe and Africa are moving away from each other. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge divides the floor of the Atlantic Ocean into eastern and western sections that are composed of a series of deep-sea basins (abyssal plains). The greatest depth (c.28,000 ft/8,530 m) is the Milwaukee Deep, in the Puerto Rico Trench, N of Puerto Rico. Scientific knowledge of the ocean floor dates from the Challenger expedition (1872–76).


Because of its shape, the Atlantic may be divided into two basins—North Atlantic Ocean and South Atlantic Ocean—each with a distinct circulation system. The clockwise-moving currents of the North Atlantic (North Equatorial Current, Antilles Current, Gulf Stream, North Atlantic Drift, Canaries Current) and the counterclockwise-moving currents of the South Atlantic (South Equatorial Current, Brazil Current, West Wind Drift, Benguela Current) are separated from each other by the Equatorial Counter Current; the Guinea Current off W Africa is a link between the two systems. At the Grand Banks off Newfoundland heavy fogs form along the front where the warm Gulf Stream meets the cold Labrador Current. The surface waters in the Atlantic's trade wind belts attain the highest salinity known in ocean water.

Commerce and Shipping

The North Atlantic Ocean has some of the world's busiest shipping lanes; the northern lanes are patrolled for icebergs. Commerce between the Mediterranean Sea and the NE Atlantic Ocean was initiated by the Carthaginians. From the 7th cent. AD, Scandinavians navigated the Atlantic; they probably reached North America c.1000. Trade routes along the coast of Africa were opened by Portugal in the 15th cent. and to the Western Hemisphere by Spain after the voyages of Columbus. The Grand Banks have traditionally contained some of the world's best commercial fishing grounds, but by the early 1990s the area had been overfished, and many species were depleted.


See V. H. Cassidy, The Sea around Them: The Atlantic Ocean, AD 1250 (1968); K. F. George, The Atlantic Ocean (1977); K. O. Emery and E. Uchupi, The Geology of the Atlantic Ocean (1984); S. Winchester, Atlantic (2010).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Atlantic Ocean: Selected full-text books and articles

The Atlantic in World History By Karen Ordahl Kupperman Oxford University Press, 2012
The Atlantic: A History of an Ocean By Leonard Outhwaite Coward McCann, 1957
Principles of Paleoclimatology By Thomas M. Cronin Columbia University Press, 1999
Librarian's tip: Includes discussion of the Atlantic Ocean in multple chapters
Early American Hurricanes, 1492-1870 By David M. Ludlum American Meteorological Society, 1963
Early Modern Expansion and the Politicization of Oceanic Space [*] By Mancke, Elizabeth The Geographical Review, Vol. 89, No. 2, April 1999
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
The Global Warming Desk Reference By Bruce E. Johansen Greenwood Press, 2002
Librarian's tip: Includes discussion of the Atlantic Ocean in multiple chapters
Looking for a topic idea? Use Questia's Topic Generator
Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.