Why is the ocean salty?

Oceans cover about 70 percent of the Earth's surface and about 97 percent of all water on and in the Earth is saline—there's a lot of salty water on our planet. By some estimates, if the salt in the ocean could be removed and spread evenly over the Earth’s land surface it would form a layer more than 500 feet (166 meters) thick, about the height of a 40-story office building (NOAA). But, where did all this salt come from? Salt in the ocean comes from rocks on land. Here's how it works:

From precipitation to the land to the rivers to the sea....

The rain that falls on the land contains some dissolved carbon dioxide from the surrounding air. This causes the rainwater to be slightly acidic due to carbonic acid. The rain physically erodes the rock and the acids chemically break down the rocks and carries salts and minerals along in a dissolved state as ions. The ions in the runoff are carried to the streams and rivers and then to the ocean. Many of the dissolved ions are used by organisms in the ocean and are removed from the water. Others are not used up and are left for long periods of time where their concentrations increase over time.

The two ions that are present most often in seawater are chloride and sodium. These two make up over 90% of all dissolved ions in seawater. The concentration of salt in seawater (its salinity) is about 35 parts per thousand; in other words, about 3.5% of the weight of seawater comes from the dissolved salts. In a cubic mile of seawater, the weight of the salt (as sodium chloride) would be about 120 million tons. A cubic mile of seawater can also contain up to 25 pounds of gold and up to 45 pounds of silver! But before you go out and try alchemy on seawater, just think about how big a cubic mile is: 1 cubic mile contains 1,101,117,147,000 gallons of water!

Learn more: USGS Water Science School

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