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4/12/2015 Composition of seawater

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Oceanography index: the index to this large section.
The chemical composition of seawater
About the oceans: size, surface, origin, evolution,
By Dr J Floor Anthoni (2000, 2006)
Ocean properties: temperature, seasons, density, (best viewed in a window as
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Open links in a work, propagate, break, 2 Special waves: tsunamis, internal waves, bores,
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In order to understand the sea, some of its chemical properties are important. This page details the
chemical composition of sea water, salinity, density, its dissolved gases, carbon dioxide and pH as
limiting factor. Chemical elements in sea water do not exist on their own but are attracted to
preferential ions of opposite charge: sulphur will occur mainly as sulphate, sodium as sodium
chloride, and so on.

Detailed composition: abundance of the elements in seawater

Salinity: the main salt ions making the sea salty
Density: the density of sea water depends on temperature and salinity
Dissolved gases: the two important gases to life, oxygen and carbondioxide. Limiting hydrogen ions and ocean pH.

Bicarbonate: the life of dissolved carbon dioxide in the sea.

Related chapters:

global climate: learn about global climate step by step, from a very wide perspective. Is global warming real or fraudulent? (140p) Mustread!

acid oceans: are oceans becoming more acidic? How does it work? Threat or fraud? (60p) Mustread!

abundance of the elements of life in the universe, earth, sea and organisms.
table of units & measures: units, measures, conversion constants, world dimensions, and much more.

periodic table: the periodic table of elements, complete with elementary chemistry and interesting facts.

soil/ecology: the main biomes of the land and their carbon sinks. How does soil work? Sustainability? What to do against erosion? (large)

the Dark Decay Assay: new discoveries of the plankton ecosystem. pH as most important limiting factor.

Seawater Composition Sea Water Fish PH in Water 1/10
4/12/2015 Composition of seawater

Seafriends home oceanography sitemap Rev 20000714,20060825,20070515,20070718,20100608,

Detailed composition of seawater at

3.5% salinity
Element At.weight ppm Element At.weight ppm
Hydrogen H2O 1.00797 110,000 Molybdenum Mo 0.09594 0.01
Oxygen H2O 15.9994 883,000 Ruthenium Ru 101.07 0.0000007
Sodium NaCl 22.9898 10,800 Rhodium Rh 102.905 .
Chlorine NaCl 35.453 19,400 Palladium Pd 106.4 .
Magnesium Mg 24.312 1,290 Argentum (silver) Ag 107.870 0.00028
Sulfur S 32.064 904 Cadmium Cd 112.4 0.00011
Potassium K 39.102 392 Indium In 114.82 .
Calcium Ca 40.08 411 Stannum (tin) Sn 118.69 0.00081
Bromine Br 79.909 67.3 Antimony Sb 121.75 0.00033
Helium He 4.0026 0.0000072 Tellurium Te 127.6 .
Lithium Li 6.939 0.170 Iodine I 166.904 0.064
Beryllium Be 9.0133 0.0000006 Xenon Xe 131.30 0.000047
Boron B 10.811 4.450 Cesium Cs 132.905 0.0003
Carbon C 12.011 28.0 Barium Ba 137.34 0.021
Nitrogen ion 14.007 15.5 Lanthanum La 138.91 0.0000029
Fluorine F 18.998 13 Cerium Ce 140.12 0.0000012
Neon Ne 20.183 0.00012 Praesodymium Pr 140.907 0.00000064
Aluminium Al 26.982 0.001 Neodymium Nd 144.24 0.0000028
Silicon Si 28.086 2.9 Samarium Sm 150.35 0.00000045
Phosphorus P 30.974 0.088 Europium Eu 151.96 0.0000013
Argon Ar 39.948 0.450 Gadolinium Gd 157.25 0.0000007
Scandium Sc 44.956 <0.000004 Terbium Tb 158.924 0.00000014
Titanium Ti 47.90 0.001 Dysprosium Dy 162.50 0.00000091
Vanadium V 50.942 0.0019 Holmium Ho 164.930 0.00000022
Chromium Cr 51.996 0.0002 Erbium Er 167.26 0.00000087
Manganese Mn 54.938 0.0004 Thulium Tm 168.934 0.00000017
Ferrum (Iron) Fe 55.847 0.0034 Ytterbium Yb 173.04 0.00000082
Cobalt Co 58.933 0.00039 Lutetium Lu 174.97 0.00000015
Nickel Ni 58.71 0.0066 Hafnium Hf 178.49 <0.000008
Copper Cu 63.54 0.0009 Tantalum Ta 180.948 <0.0000025
Zinc Zn 65.37 0.005 Tungsten W 183.85 <0.000001
Gallium Ga 69.72 0.00003 Rhenium Re 186.2 0.0000084
Germanium Ge 72.59 0.00006 Osmium Os 190.2 .
Arsenic As 74.922 0.0026 Iridium Ir 192.2 .
Selenium Se 78.96 0.0009 Platinum Pt 195.09 .
Krypton Kr 83.80 0.00021 Aurum (gold) Au 196.967 0.000011
Rubidium Rb 85.47 0.120 Mercury Hg 200.59 0.00015
Strontium Sr 87.62 8.1 Thallium Tl 204.37 .
Yttrium Y 88.905 0.000013 Lead Pb 207.19 0.00003
Zirconium Zr 91.22 0.000026 Bismuth Bi 208.980 0.00002
Niobium Nb 92.906 0.000015 Thorium Th 232.04 0.0000004
Uranium U 238.03 0.0033
Plutonimu Pu (244) .
Note! ppm= parts per million = mg/litre = 0.001g/kg.
source: Karl K Turekian: Oceans. 1968. PrenticeHall 2/10
4/12/2015 Composition of seawater

Salinity and the main salt ions

The salinity of sea water (usually 3.5%) is made up by all the dissolved salts shown in the above table.
Interestingly, their proportions are always the same, which can be understood if salinity differences are caused by
either evaporating fresh water or adding fresh water from rivers. Freezing and thawing also matter.

Salinity affects marine organisms because the process of osmosis transports water towards a higher concentration
through cell walls. A fish with a cellular salinity of 1.8% will swell in fresh water and dehydrate in salt water. So,
saltwater fish drink water copiously while excreting excess salts through their gills. Freshwater fish do the opposite
by not drinking but excreting copious amounts of urine while losing little of their body salts.
Marine plants (seaweeds) and many lower organisms have no mechanism to control osmosis, which makes them
very sensitive to the salinity of the water in which they live.
The main nutrients for plant growth are nitrogen (N as in nitrate NO3, nitrite NO2, ammonia NH4 ), phosporus (P
as phosphate PO4 ) and potassium (K) followed by Sulfur (S), Magnesium (Mg) and Calcium (Ca). Iron (Fe) is an
essential component of enzymes and is copiously available in soil, but not in sea water (0.0034ppm). This makes iron
an essential nutrient for plankton growth. Plankton organisms (like diatoms) that make shells of silicon compounds
furthermore need dissolved silicon salts (SiO2) which at 3ppm can be rather limiting.
The main salt ions that make up 99.9% are the following:

chemical ion valence concentration part of molecular mmol/

ppm, mg/kg salinity % weight kg
Chloride Cl 1 19345 55.03 35.453 546
Sodium Na +1 10752 30.59 22.990 468
Sulfate SO4 2 2701 7.68 96.062 28.1
Magnesium Mg +2 1295 3.68 24.305 53.3
Calcium Ca +2 416 1.18 40.078 10.4
Potassium K +1 390 1.11 39.098 9.97
Bicarbonate HCO3 1 145 0.41 61.016 2.34
Bromide Br 1 66 0.19 79.904 0.83
Borate BO3 3 27 0.08 58.808 0.46
Strontium Sr +2 13 0.04 87.620 0.091
Fluoride F 1 1 0.003 18.998 0.068

By adding the mol in last column up, multiplied by respective valences, like: 546 +468 56.2 +106.6 + .... one ends
up with almost 0, suggesting that the above values are about right. During the Challenger Expedition of the 1870s, it
was discovered that the ratios between elements is nearly constant although salinity (the amount of H2O) may vary.
Note that the figures above differ slightly in differing publications. Also landlocked seas like the Black Sea and the
Baltic Sea, have differing concentrations. 3/10
4/12/2015 Composition of seawater

This world map shows how the salinity of the oceans

changes slightly from around 32ppt (3.2%) to 40ppt
(4.0%). Low salinity is found in cold seas,
particularly during the summer season when ice
melts. High salinity is found in the ocean 'deserts' in
a band coinciding with the continental deserts. Due
to cool dry air descending and warming up, these
desert zones have very little rainfall, and high
evaporation. The Red Sea located in the desert
region but almost completely closed, shows the
highest salinity of all (40ppt) but the Mediterranean
Sea follows as a close second (38ppt). Lowest
salinity is found in the upper reaches of the Baltic
Sea (0.5%). The Dead Sea is 24% saline, containing
mainly magnesium chloride MgCl2. Shallow coastal
areas are 2.63.0% saline and estuaries 03%.

Making sea salt

Sea salt is made by evaporating sea water, but this is not straightforward. Between 100% and 50% first the calcium carbonate
(CaCO3= limestone) precipitates out, which is chalk and not desirable. Between 50% and 20%, gypsum precipitates out
(CaSO4.2H2O), which also tastes like chalk. Between 20% and 1% sea salt precipitates (NaCl) but going further, the bitter
potassium and magnesium chlorides and sulfates precipitate, which is to be avoided, unless for health reasons. In commercial
salt production, the water is led through various evaporation ponds, to achieve the desired result. Note that this process has
also happened where large lakes dried out, laying down the above salts in the above sequence. Note that normal sea water is
undersaturated with respect to all its salts, except for calcium carbonate which may occur in saturated or nearsaturated state
in surface waters.
An artificial salt solution of 3.5% (35ppt) is made by weighing 35g of salt in a beaker and topping it up with fresh water to

The density of fresh water is 1.00 (gram/ml or kg/litre) but added salts can increase this. The saltier the water, the
higher its density. When water warms, it expands and becomes less dense. The colder the water, the denser it
becomes. So it is possible that warm salty water remains on top of cold, less salty water. The density of 35ppt
saline seawater at 15C is about 1.0255, or s (sigma)= 25.5. Another word for density is specific gravity. 4/10
4/12/2015 Composition of seawater

The relationship between temperature, salinity and

density is shown by the blue isopycnal (of same
density) curves in this diagram. In red, green and
blue the waters of the major oceans of the planet is
shown for depths below 200 metre. The Pacific has
most of the lightest water with densities below 26.0,
whereas the Atlantic has most of the densest water
between 27.5 and 28.0. Antarctic bottom water is
indeed densest for Pacific and Indian oceans but not
for the Atlantic which has a lot of similarly dense

Dissolved gases in seawater

The gases dissolved in sea water are in constant equilibrium with the atmosphere but their relative concentrations
depend on each gas' solubility, which depends also on salinity and temperature. As salinity increases, the amount of
gas dissolved decreases because more water molecules are immobilised by the salt ion. As water temperature
increases, the increased mobility of gas molecules makes them escape from the water, thereby reducing the amount
of gas dissolved.
Inert gases like nitrogen and argon do not take part in the processes of life and are thus not affected by plant and
animal life. But nonconservative gases like oxygen and carbondioxide are influenced by sea life. Plants reduce the
concentration of carbondioxide in the presence of sunlight, whereas animals do the opposite in either light or

gas % in % in surface ml/litre mg/kg (ppm) molecular mmol/

molecule atmosphere seawater sea water in sea water weight kg
Nitrogen N2 78% 47.5% 10 12.5 28.014 0.446
Oxygen O2 21% 36.0% 5 7 31.998 0.219
Carbondioxide CO2 0.03% 15.1% 40 90 * 42.009 2.142
Argon 1% 1.4% . 0.4 39.948 0.01
One kg of fresh water contains 55.6 mol H2O
* also reported as 80 mg/kg
Please note that these figures may be incorrect as too many different values have been published

In the above table, the conservative gases nitrogen and argon do not contribute to life processes, even though
nitrogen gas can be converted by some bacteria into fertilising nitrogen compounds (NO3, NH4). Surprisingly the
world under water is very much different from that above in the availability of the most important gases for life:
oxygen and carbondioxide. Whereas in air about one in five molecules is oxygen, in sea water this is only about 4
in every thousand million water molecules. Whereas air contains about one carbondioxide molecule in 3000 air
molecules, in sea water this ratio becomes 4 in every 100 million water molecules, which makes carbondioxide
much more common (available) in sea water than oxygen. Note that even though their concentrations in solution
differ due to differences in solubility (ability to dissolve), their partial pressures remain as in air, according to
Henry's law, except where life changes this. Plants increase oxygen content while decreasing carbondioxide and 5/10
4/12/2015 Composition of seawater

animals do the reverse. Bacteria are even capable of using up all oxygen.

All gases are less soluble as temperature increases, particularly nitrogen, oxygen and carbondioxide which become
about 4050% less soluble with an increase of 25C. When water is warmed, it becomes more saturated, eventually
resulting in bubbles leaving the liquid. Fish like sunbathing or resting near the warm surface or in warm water
outfalls because oxygen levels there are higher. The elevated temperature also enhances their metabolism, resulting
in faster growth, and perhaps a sense of wellbeing.
Likewise if the whole ocean were to warm up, the equilibrium with the atmosphere would change towards more
carbondioxide (and oxygen) being released to the atmosphere, thereby exacerbating global warming.
Since the volume of all oceans is 1.35E21 kg (see table of units & measures) and CO2 concentration is 9E5 kg/kg
(90ppm), it follows that the total amount of CO2 in all oceans is 12.2E16 kg = 121,000 Pg (Mt) and the partial
carbon amount (12/42) = 34,700 Pg (600Pg in surface waters + 7000Pg in mid waters + 30,000Pg in deep ocean = 37,600Pg [1] ).
Compare this with the amount of carbon in soil and vegetation (1301 + 664 = 1965 Pg, see soil/ecology) and the
carbon in the atmosphere, about 1 kg per square metre over 510E6 km2 = 510E12 kg = 510 Pg ( 700Pg [1]). It follows
that the ocean is a very large reservoir of carbondioxide, also called Dissolved Inorganic Carbon (DIC). In addition
to this, it contains Dissolved Organic Carbon (DOC) of unknown quantity. The difference between DIC and DOC is
an arbitrary particle size of 0.45m which passes DIC through filtration paper. This definition does not distinguish
our newly discovered slush (incompletely decomposed biomolecules) as DOC. See our DDA section.

What is dissolved, particulate, inorganic and organic carbon?

Carbon is a miraculous element located in the middle of the Periodic Table, next to nitrogen, which is also a surprising
element. Elements to the left are basic with positive valence (attracting free electrons) and those to the right are acidic with
negative valence (owning loose electrons). Carbon with a valence of 4 can bind with both sides of the table and with itself.
When combined with hydrogen, it forms long chains of organic molecules like CH3.CH2.CH2......X where the end group X
gives it the character of an alkane (CH3), alcohol (OH), acid (COOH), aldehyde (COH), amino (NH2), and so on. The
organic carbon chains can form loops and bonds with other elements, all being organic compounds. Only few inorganic
carbon compounds are known, of which carbondioxide (CO2) is by far the most common. Natural gas or methane (CH4) is
either the last inorganic molecule or the first organic molecule. So it is safe to say that dissolved inorganic carbon is CO2,
particularly since it dissolves so readily in water.

All biomolecules that make up the structure of an organism are organic (except for salts in body liquids), and when these are
decomposed, the leftover molecules are also organic, except for inorganic nutrients and CO2, for the whole purpose of
decomposition is to turn organic molecules into inorganic nutrients and CO2 for plants. All biomolecules can be transported
by being dissolved in water. When an organism dies and decomposes, most of its organic molecules end up in solution as
dissolved organic carbon (DOC), molecules that are very much smaller than the smallest of organisms (viruses).

Plankton organisms are classified by size from femtoplankton (smaller than 0.2m), picoplankton (0.22m) to megaplankton
(0.22m). Note that the wavelength of visible light is 0.40.7m, which means that organisms smaller than 1m are not visible
under a light microscope (all viruses and most bacteria). What all this means is that measuring the biomass of plankton is
almost impossible. For practical reasons, scientists decided that anything passing through fine filtration paper (0.45m) is
dissolved and all that is retained is particulate. Unfortunately this marks a substantial amount of particulate biomass as

Phytoplankton consists of organisms from bacteria to diatoms and large dinoflagellates (like sea spark, Noctiluca
scintillans). Their biomass can be estimated by measuring their chlorophyl (green pigment) from light measurements.
However, other pigments (brown, red) are also common and the amount of chlorophyl is only a small part of biomass. So,
even quantifying the amount of phytoplankton is almost impossible.

The bottom line is that the boundaries between dissolved, particulate, inorganic and organic are rather vague. Also the
functional difference between producers (phytoplankton) and decomposers (most bacteria) is seldom acknowledged. 6/10
4/12/2015 Composition of seawater

Deep sea temperature, oxygen & nutrients

In general the ratios between the various elements in
seawater is constant, except where modified by life.
In this diagram one can see how light penetrates no
deeper than 150m for photosynthesis. Indeed at
800m, the ocean is pitch dark. In the surface mixed
layer above the thermocline, water mixes sufficiently
to sustain life. Gas exchange with the atmosphere is
nearperfect such that the oxygen concentration in the
water is in equilibrium with the atmosphere. But it
rapidly decreases below 5075m as photosynthesis
declines while animals use up most oxygen. At
around 800m oxygen levels reach a minimum (as
also carbondioxide levels reach a maximum, not
shown). Towards the deep and bottom water, oxygen
levels increase slightly due to
an influx of cold bottom water from the poles. Due to lack of oxygen, deep sea fish cannot be very active. The
coloured curves for phosphate and nitrate show how these nutrients are almost completely used near the
surface and how they gradually become available in the thermocline layer. Note how the Atlantic Ocean ends up
with less nutrients than the Pacific and Indian oceans.
The temperature curve shows the general idea of staying relatively high and constant in the mixed layer, then
declining rapidly in the thermocline layer until reaching a near constant temperature of +3C in deep and bottom
water. The maximum surface temperature of course depends on many factors, like latitude and season.

Note that the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased from 280 ppm in 1850 to 360 ppm in 1998, and
is still rising. It is estimated that about 50% of anthropogenic CO2 has been absorbed by the oceans. Because the
upper atmosphere is bombarded by cosmic rays, some of the nitrogen atoms become radioactive isotopes C14 with a
half life of 5730 years. Once incorporated into organisms, its radioactivity decays slowly, allowing scientists to
calculate the age of organic substances. Fossil fuels which have been underground for over 60 million years, have lost
nearly all their radioactive carbon isotopes, and in this manner CO2 from burning fossil fuels can be distinguished
from normal CO2 circulation. The diagrams below shows how fossil carbondioxide is absorbed by the oceans.

Radioactive Carbon14
As cosmic rays bombard the outer atmosphere, they are slowed down by the thin gases there. With their energy of billions of
electronVolt (eV) they produce fast neutrons that gradually slow down to that of thermal neutrons. At a height of about 9-
15km, these neutrons collide with nitrogen14 (normal nitrogen), producing radioactive carbon14 (carbon with one extra
neutron). The total amount of C14 produced each year is about 9.8kg for the whole Earth, or about 1 atom C14 for 1 trillion
(1E12) normal C12 atoms. Nuclear tests have almost doubled the quantity in the atmosphere in a peak (year 1964) that is
gradually becoming normal again as the peak is absorbed by organisms and the ocean. Radioactive carbon decays back to
nitrogen by emitting an electron (beta radiation) at the initial rate of 14 disintegrations per minute per gram carbon. The C13
carbon isotope which is not radioactive, occurs for about one in every 100 atoms C. The age of organic remains can thus be
measured by counting beta radiation from disintegrating atoms, but a much more sensitive method is by counting all C14
atoms by mass spectrometry.
Because of its slow decay rate of 50% in 5700 years, the total amount of C14 in the atmosphere, biosphere and oceans is much
higher than 10kg. According to Libby (1955) who invented carbon dating, the distribution of carbon and carbon 14 is as

carbon reservoir percentage

CO2 dissolved in oceans 87.5
Dissolved Organic Carbon (DOC) in oceans 7.1
Biosphere, all living organisms 4.0
Atmospheric CO2 1.4 7/10
4/12/2015 Composition of seawater 8/10
4/12/2015 Composition of seawater

Note that at a pH of 7.0 (neutral water) only 0.1 mol/kg (10 ) of water is dissociated into positive hydrogen ions
H and negative hydroxyl ions OH . In the ocean where a pH of around 8 is found, this becomes even less at 0.01
mol/kg, which makes hydrogen ions twenty times scarcer than oxygen and 200 times scarcer than carbondioxide. It
explains how important the pH is to the productivity of aquatic ecosystems. Visit our latest plankton discoveries in
the Dark Decay Assay section where this limiting factor was quantified in freshwater lakes.

This world map of ocean acidity shows that ocean pH varies from about 7.90 to 8.20 but along the coast one may
find much larger variations from 7.3 inside deep estuaries to 8.6 in productive coastal plankton blooms and 9.5 in
tide pools. The map shows that pH is lowest in the most productive regions where upwellings occur. It is thought
that the average acidity of the oceans decreased from 8.25 to 8.14 since the advent of fossil fuel (Jacobson M Z,

Carbondioxide as bicarbonate
Carbondioxide binds loosely with water to form bicarbonate:

+ + + 2
CO2 + H2O <=> H2CO3 <=> H + HCO3 <=> H + H + CO3
in the ratios CO2 & carbonic acid H2CO3 = 1%, bicarbonate HCO3 = 93%, carbonate CO3 =6%. These variants of
CO2 (species) add up to the total amount of Dissolved Inorganic Carbon (DIC), which also includes a smaller amount
of Dissolved Organic Carbon (DOC) that passes filtration techniques.
The <=> symbol means 'in equilibrium with'.

These forms of carbon are always in close equilibrium with the atmosphere and with one another. When one talks
about dissolved carbondioxide, it is the slightly acidic bicarbonate. When the concentration of CO2 in the
atmosphere increases, presumably also the concentration in the ocean's surface increases, and this works itself
through to the right in above equation. 9/10
4/12/2015 Composition of seawater

Photosynthesis of organic matter is often simplified as: CO2 + H2O + sunlight => CH2O +O2, which happens
only in the sunlit depths to 150m and down to where the sea mixes.
The average composition of marine plants is: H:O:C:N:P:S = 212:106:106:16:2:1 which comes close to CH2O.

Respiration is often simplified as : CH2O => CO2 + H2O + energy, which can happen at all depths, depending on
the amount of food sinking down from above.
Therefore the concentrations of oxygen and carbondioxide vary with depth. The surface layers are rich in oxygen
which reduces quickly with depth, to reach a minimum between 200800m depth. The deep ocean is richer in
oxygen because of cool and dense surface water descending from the poles into the deep ocean.
It is thought that the carbondioxide in the sea exists in equilibrium with that of exposed rock containing limestone
CaCO3. In other words, that the element calcium exists in equilibrium with CO3. But the concentration of Ca
(411ppm) is 10.4 mmol/l and that of all CO2 species (90ppm) 2.05 mmol/l, of which CO3 is about 6%, thus 0.12
mmol/l. Thus the sea has a vast oversupply of calcium.

[1] Report of the Royal Society (June 2005): Ocean acidification due to increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide. (1MB)

PH in Water Ocean Soil PH Levels PH 10/10