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.


About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach