The sea moderates Earth’s climate and has important roles in the water cycle, carbon cycle, and nitrogen cycle. Although the sea has been traveled and explored since prehistory, the modern scientific study of the sea—oceanography dates broadly to the British Challenger expedition of the 1870s.

The sea is conventionally divided into up to five large oceanic sections—including the International Hydrographic Organization’s four named oceans (the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, and Arctic) and the Southern Ocean; smaller, second-order sections, such as the Mediterranean, are known as seas.

Owing to the present state of continental drift, the Northern Hemisphere is now fairly equally divided between land and sea but the South is overwhelmingly oceanic. Salinity in the open ocean is generally in a narrow band around 3.5% by mass, although this can vary in more landlocked waters, near the mouths of large rivers, or at great depths. About 85% of the solids in the open sea are sodium chloride.

Salinity in the open ocean is generally in a narrow band around 3.5% by mass

Deep-sea currents are produced by differences in salinity and temperature. Surface currents are formed by the friction of waves produced by the wind and by tides, the changes in local sea level produced by the gravity of the Moon and Sun. The direction of all of these is governed by surface and submarine land masses and by the rotation of the Earth.

Former changes in sea levels have left continental shelves, shallow areas in the sea close to land. These nutrient-rich waters teem with life, which provide humans with substantial supplies of food—mainly fish, but also shellfish, mammals, and seaweed—which are both harvested in the wild and farmed. The most diverse areas surround great tropical coral reefs. Whaling in the deep sea was once common but whales’ dwindling numbers prompted international conservation efforts and finally a moratorium on most commercial hunting.

Oceanography has established that not all life is restricted to the sunlit surface waters: even under enormous depths and pressures, nutrients streaming from hydrothermal vents support their own unique ecosystem. Life may have started there and aquatic microbial mats are generally credited with the oxygenation of Earth’s atmosphere; both plants and animals first evolved in the sea.

The sea is an essential aspect of human trade, travel, mineral extraction, and power generation. This has also made it essential to warfare and left major cities exposed to earthquakes and volcanoes from nearby faults; powerful tsunami waves; and hurricanes, typhoons, and cyclones produced in the tropics.