It goes without question that salinity levels will be lower where rivers enter as the river water mixing with the sea water will reduce the salinity levels. But, the thing is, when you look at the map below, salinity levels are different in strange places.

Map of sea surface salinity Annual mean sea surface salinity for the World Ocean. Data from the World Ocean Atlas 2009. Image from Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0

The Dead Sea is actually a salt lake, just east of the Mediterranean Sea, so I suppose you can understand the high salinity there. But, why would the salinity be particularly high in the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea while particularly low in the Java Sea, Gulf of Thailand, the Andaman Sea, the South China Sea and the Bay of Bengal? The same anomaly can be seen west of Panama and Colombia.

Another part to this question, is that where this map shows surface salinity levels, do the salinity levels level out to a worldwide level as you go deeper or are there different salinity levels worldwide at deeper levels?


I may have found a possibility why the Red Sea has high salinity, and that is due to desalination plants in the area.

The biggest ones are in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Israel. The world's largest desalination plant is located in Saudi Arabia (Ras Al-Khair Power and Desalination Plant) with a capacity of 1,036,000 cubic meters per day. (Source: AquaTechTrade). Is that a plausible reason for the Red Sea?

  • $\begingroup$ I am not sure if it is a good idea to create tags about that places. $\endgroup$ Nov 7 '21 at 13:03
  • $\begingroup$ Hint: the Sahara desert is where it is for the same reason. $\endgroup$ Nov 7 '21 at 23:52
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Have you considered that both the Mediterranean and Red Seas are nearly closed basins, with few rivers flowing into them, in an area with generally high temperatures? $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Nov 8 '21 at 2:39
  • $\begingroup$ Note that Saudi Arabia's biggest desalination plants, and those of the Gulf States which are almost as big, are the wrong size of the Arabian Peninsula to affect the Red Sea $\endgroup$
    – Chris H
    Nov 8 '21 at 22:28
  • $\begingroup$ Compare the Mediterranean & Red Seas with the Baltic Sea. Likewise a nearly closed basin, it is located in an area of mild temperatures and high rainfall, and thus has lower salinity than the open ocean. Indeed, freshwater fish are said to survive in the northern parts of the Gulf of Bothnia. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Nov 10 '21 at 19:35

It has nothing (or very, very little) to do with desalinization plants. It has to do with the balance between Evaporation minus Precipitation (E-P), rivers, and advection. The link to E-P is the main one: enter image description here Source: IFREMER

Salinity is controlled by processes of concentration and dilution. Evaporation removes water vapor from the sea surface, but the salt remains resulting on an increase in salinity. Meanwhile, precipitation and river runoff flux into the ocean dilutes the salt resulting in lower surface salinities. Taking the difference between evaporation (E) and precipitation (P) provides the net gain or loss of water by the ocean.

Sea surface salinity (SSS) patterns are associated with general atmospheric circulation. The net air-sea freshwater fluxes and SSS have patterns that are remarkably similar (Baumgartner and Reichel, 1975; Durack and Wijffels, 2010). The ocean subtropical gyres are at edge of the atmospheric Hadley cells and result in SSS maxima in between 15 and 30 degrees latitude. Rain along the tropics associated with the Intertropical Convergence Zone results in lower SSS close to the Equator. North of the subtropical gyres and in the polar regions, excess precipitation also causes a drop in SSS. Also, there are differences between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans; with the Atlantic having more evaporation that causes a relatively saltier Atlantic basin.

The effect of rivers is extremely important on a local or even regional scale, but globally E-P dominates. Water transport Source: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

In the cases you mentioned, the Mediterranean Sea and Red Sea have a deficit of precipitation when compare to evaporation. Mediterranean Source: SMOS

Even though both of them are connected to the open ocean, the connections are limited (Straits of Gibraltar and Bab al-Mandab Strait) and the currents provide only limited volume exchange. The result is an increased in salinity over the basin especially away from the connection to the open-ocean (higher salinities around the eastern Mediterranean and northern Red Sea).

The area around the Bay of Bengal and Indonesia have both increased rain and river discharge resulting in lower salinities.

The water volume flux of the largest desalination plants is tiny when compared with the air-sea fluxes over an entire basin or the river discharge of large rivers. If you consider volume flux, the largest desalinization plant in the world (Ras Al Khair, Saudi Arabia) produces about 12 $m^3/s$. Meanwhile, the average river discharge of the Mississippi River is between 7,000–20,000 $m^3/s$. In the Mediterranean, river discharge, while smaller than the Mississippi, is still quite large. Mediterranean rivers Source: State of the Mediterranean Marine and Coastal Environment

Clearly, rivers around the Red Sea have way lower discharges. Another factor to consider is that the brine from desalinization plants is going to tend to sink deeper because of its higher density and it is going to not easily mix with the rest of the water column, not having a large effect on SSS. Ibrahim and Eltahir (2019) provides more info on the effect of desalination in the Red Sea.

Baumgartner, F. and Reichel, E., 1975. The World Water Balance: Mean Annual Global. Continental and Maritime Precipitation, Evaporation and Runoff (Ordenbourg, München, Germany, 1975).

Durack, P.J. and Wijffels, S.E., 2010. Fifty-year trends in global ocean salinities and their relationship to broad-scale warming. Journal of Climate, 23(16), pp.4342-4362.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ This 2016 news article suggests that desalination can have an effect locally (Arabian Gulf). Of course that's in a confined, and shallow, area. I read something more recent in the last week or two, but can't find it now $\endgroup$
    – Chris H
    Nov 8 '21 at 12:29
  • $\begingroup$ If you consider volume flux, the largest desalinization plant in the world (Ras Al Khair, Saudi Arabia) produces about 12m^3/s. Meanwhile, the average river discharge of the Mississippi River is between 7,000–20,000 m^3/s $\endgroup$
    – arkaia
    Nov 8 '21 at 15:21
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ And the biggest river feeding the Arabian (or Persian) Gulf is the Shatt al-Arab, with an average of about 150× that plant. Plenty of other plants come close, so a rough estimate might suggest that the Shatt al-Arab averages 10× what the Arabian Gulf's desalination plants put out. But this is a very variable river. I've seen figures suggesting that in the past minimum flows were around 1/10 the average (and flood flows 10× the average). Of course it's not the only river flowing into that sea... $\endgroup$
    – Chris H
    Nov 8 '21 at 15:53
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ ... and it's also one of the saltiest. But in this edge case we can get rather closer than you say for the general case (which I agree with and have voted up) - similar magnitudes at least in some seasons. Of course there's the net inflow through the Straits of Hormuz, but that's already moderately salty by the standards of the open ocean $\endgroup$
    – Chris H
    Nov 8 '21 at 15:56
  • $\begingroup$ Also, I've mentioned in the answer, salty water is also going to try to sink into the deeper parts of the Red Sea basin and it might not directly affect the surface salinity. $\endgroup$
    – arkaia
    Nov 8 '21 at 21:25

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.