Deep Water Formation In The Mediterranean Sea

By: Giorgio Graffino

“The Mediterranean Sea is a small-scale ocean”, as my old teacher used to tell me. All right, that was probably a bit exaggerated. Still, it’s true that the Mediterranean Sea provides an almost unique environment to study important ocean processes, such as general circulation, air-sea interactions, and climate change, in a fairly small basin. In particular, the Mediterranean Sea is home to some of the few deep water formation regions of the World Ocean.

Deep water formation is when surface waters sink down below 2000m of depth. This occurs in small ocean regions, usually found at high latitudes. The most famous are in the Labrador Sea (between Canada and Greenland), and in the Weddell Sea (close to Antarctica). These regions are particularly important for the global climate, for they are the sinking branches of the thermohaline circulation. Key ingredients of deep water formation are: weak stratification of the surface waters, and strong air sea-interactions. These conditions are usually met during winter, when large surface heat fluxes cause a large buoyancy loss of the surface waters. The effects of this are felt at great depths (even below 2000 m). For this reason, deep water formation is also called open-ocean convection.

It is not easy to explain how open-ocean convection works, but let’s give it a try. Convection is triggered locally, in plumes with widths less than 1 km. This happens when the surface water is forced to stay in contact with low atmospheric temperatures and strong winds. There is little mass exchange involved in open-ocean convection. Rather, convective plumes help to mix temperature and salinity over the water column. This causes buoyancy loss over great depths, right down to the abyss (the region of ocean between 2000 m and 6000 m of depth).

How can these small structures mix water properties across such great vertical extent? Why do lateral exchanges (like entrainment) not dissipate these plumes away? Because of the Earth’s rotation! In fact, rotation makes convective plumes more “rigid”, which inhibits entrainment. Figure 1 shows an example of convective plumes created through an experiment using a rotating tank. Two fans at the edge of the tank force the water into the centre, which then sinks to the bottom of the tank. This process is called Ekman pumping. A dye tracer was added to the water to show the downward convection occurring in the centre, in the form of small columns. The small shapes visible in the centre of the tank in Figure 1 are the plumes seen from above.

Figure 1: Convective plumes (seen from above) in a rotating tank.

Let’s now move to our area of interest. Although the Mediterranean Sea is not among the most famous deep water formation sites, there are still four regions where deep water formation occurs (Figure 2). For the sake of simplicity, I will focus on one region. I chose the Gulf of Lion for my master’s thesis, and I will do the same here. The formation process has three phases.

  1. Preconditioning: A cyclonic gyre, formed by the action of the wind on the sea surface and by the sea floor structure, causes subsurface waters to rise to the surface
  2. Violent mixing: The Mistral and the Tramontane (cold and dry northerly winds) cause violent mixing in small convective plumes where the surface waters are weakly stratified
  3. Lateral exchange: Lateral exchange occurs between the mixed patch and the surrounding water, which restores the initial seawater conditions

As usual, timing is fundamental. Convection can only occur if the buoyancy loss is suitably intense. This means that the buoyancy losses must be concentrated in few strong events, rather than be evenly distributed over the whole winter season. Usually the preconditioning takes place during December and January, and the violent mixing phase occurs during February and March.  Lateral exchange occurs either simultaneously with the mixing phase, or shortly thereafter.

Figure 2: Deep water formation regions in the Mediterranean Sea (Pinardi et al. 2015).

How is deep water formation measured? As the vertical mass exchange is negligible, it is difficult to measure the velocity of this mass. Instead, we assess the seawater density. The convective plumes create a uniform-density patch of water. As all water masses have a characteristic density range, we can compute the amount of water formed in that density class over time, i.e. the water mass formation rate.

Unfortunately, extensive seawater density measurements are not easy to achieve in both space and time, but we can “fill the gaps” in observations with ocean reanalysis products, such as the data provided by the Mediterranean Forecasting System (MFS). Figure 3 shows the water mass formation rate in the Gulf of Lion from 1987 to 2012, calculated using MFS data. The black line shows monthly averages, which peak during winter. The red line shows the winter average (November to April) each year, and the green line shows the average February and March water mass formation rate in each year. There are big variations from year to year. That depends on how much the preconditioning phase is weakening the surface stratification, and on how intense is the atmospheric forcing.

Figure 3: Water mass formation rate (1 Sverdrup = 106 m3 s-1) in the Gulf of Lion, computed from MFS reanalysis data. The black line is the monthly average rate, the red line is the seasonal average rate and the green line is the February+March average rate. Adapted from Graffino (2015).

Deep water formation is just one example of the many processes observed in the Mediterranean Sea. To have such a rich and diverse environment right in our backyard is quite a stroke of luck for ocean and climate scientists in Europe (yes, the UK is still part of Europe). The Mediterranean Sea is currently experiencing big changes due to climate change, and its ecosystems are undergoing increasing pressure. Understanding its importance helps to protect it. So, let’s do it!


 Graffino, G. (2015). A study of air-sea interaction processes on water mass formation and upwelling in the Mediterranean Sea. Master’s thesis, University of Bologna,

Marshall, J., and F. Schott, (1999). Open‐ocean convection: Observations, theory, and models, Rev. Geophys., 37(1), 1-64,

Pinardi, N. and Coauthors, (2015). Mediterranean Sea Large-Scale Low-Frequency Ocean Variability and Water Mass Formation Rates from 1987 to 2007: a retrospective analysis. Prog. Oceanogr. 132, 318-332.


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