Better Than A Van Gogh: NASA Visualizes All The World's Ocean Currents

Our oceans are every bit as turbulent as "Starry Night."

We imagine the ocean as having high tides and low tides, water that comes in and out in waves. Beyond that, how does water actually move around the world? What’s that flow look like?

NASA Scientific Visualization Studio assembled this remarkable animation of the surface currents of our oceans. It’s called Perpetual Ocean, and the full work is 20 minutes of HD video, assembled from a huge amount of satellite, on location, and computational data generated by ECCO2 (Estimating the Circulation and Climate of the Ocean, Phase 2). ECCO2 itself exists to better understand our oceans and their role in the changing global climate.

What you’re looking at is the surface current flow (not anything deeper) of oceans around the world, recorded from 2006 to 2007. The white lines are the currents, and the darker blue colors of the water represent bathymetry (the fancy word for misnomer "ocean topography").

The image is wondrous, isn’t it? I had no conception of how many massive whirlpools sit off the world’s coasts. It’s hard to imagine how difficult sea travel must have been to early explorers, trapped in currents without motors, relying only on wind, guts, and the stars to take them somewhere they’ve never seen before. Heck, it seems scary to undertake now.

Click to zoom.

And all this pontification is ignoring just how unthinkingly beautiful the visualization looks. NASA has rendered a picture of the ocean that’s as gorgeous as the ocean itself.

I find myself replaying the video embedded here, again and again, while Googling the locations of deeper currents to make sense of the surface repercussions I’m looking at. But the static references I discover—arrows pointing around continents—just aren’t the same. I’ve been spoiled by the complexity of this work. I don’t want to see nature simplified or snap-shotted. I just want to see it. I can notice the trends for myself.

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  • Dtking

    Is it possible to see the currents around Cape Horn and Terre del Fuego?  Thanks.

  • observantowl

    One thing to remember is that these are the SURFACE currents, there are subsurface currents and then these currents also dive down at points to become part of the deeper currents (in the polar regions) and in places the deeper currents upwell to become cold upwellings providing nutrients to the surface.  Always more to consider . . .

    Interestingly with the warm and cold core eddies which are so many of these whirlpools is that the larger gyres get lost while the eddies appear so numerous in this visualization. It is in part scale and speed that I think we need to remember and be cognizant of for the major ocean circulation patterns.

  • Rick Bates

    This is really neat.  You don't realize the "total" ocean current throughout he world. 

  • Gaby Adam

    What a wonderful visual.  Thanks for sharing it, Mark.  On a related note, it will be very exciting to see all the life-changing things we learn from the ocean and its many inhabitants. 

  • g221

    For those disappointed by NASA's redo, see NOAA's Science on the Sphere ( for the original visualization of currents using technology developed by Dr Colin Ware at Univ of New Hampshire Center for Coastal & Ocean Mapping - that is also on display at the Smithsonian's Oceans Hall in Washington, D.C.

  • Veronique Levy

    Wonderfully beautiful! It is amazing that this complexity works and sustains life!

  • Marcel Kuil

    So here we can see the flow of the oceans,less saltier streams,that provides the shores of the continents it's shores,the need for seawater with an lower amount of salt,that water interacts with the riverstreams from mountains that ends in seas
    Yes i checked the clip a bit with this sat image from Nasa.
    I think those streams also have a cleaningjob for the oceans now a days,and an protecting job.

  • Subir Das0

    Excellent work! It amplifies real world is sometimes more intense and fascinating that hollywood creations.. 

  • dudeseascrolls

    Yes! The currents involved in the "Garbage Patch" would be good to see.

  • Annetteo

    This is amazing.  I never knew the currents were so mixed and that so many whirlpools existed.  Beautiful!  But as a New Zealander I am a little disappointed that the Southern Pacific ocean was absent from this clip.  I would have loved to have seen the currents down around antarctica and New Zealand's shores.   Do you have any footage that you could add for us southerners?

  • Drew

    I know exactly how you feel. Was eagerly waiting to see the currents around Cape Reinga and Cook Strait.