Earth Sciences and Ecology Question #412

Joe, a 22 year old male from Atlanta, GA asks on November 25, 2001,

Why are the water levels of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans different at the Panama Canal if they are all part of the same body of water? Is there a distance beyond which water doesn't seek equilibrium in its pressure/level? What would happen in the short and long term if the Panama Canal's locks were removed and the two oceans were allowed to meet?

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The answer

Verena Tunnicliffe answered on November 25, 2001

The Pacific is somewhat higher than the Atlantic at the Panama Canal. I can't remember the exact difference off the top of my head but I would guess somthing like half a meter. There was some concern expressed during debates about digging a sealevel Panama Canal because there would be a net flow from Pacific to Atlantic likely bringing Pacific animals with it. Nobody can know what the long term effects would be, but one can speculate that a flow of species from Pacific to Atlantic might have effects. The higher sealevel arises from the fact that the Atlantic is so much saltier though it is warmer. It seems the salinity dominates over the warmth of the Atlantic. Since the extra salt makes the Atlantic heavier, the tremendous force of gravity on this huge mass of water makes it a bit lower than the Pacific.

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