The Gulf Stream is one of many OCEAN CURRENTS. A warm water current in the Atlantic Ocean, it greatly affects the climate of North America and Europe and has played an important role in routes used by ships. It is created by easterly winds putting pressure on the Atlantic Ocean, a pressure built up in the Gulf of Mexico. Warming caused by proximity to the EQUATOR also contributes to higher pressure. The water seeks an outlet and forms a northward flowing current, past Florida and along the east coast of North America. At Cape Hatteras, as it runs into the southern branch of the cold Labrador Current, the current takes an eastward course. Farther east it splits into two branches, one passing western GREENLAND, the other passing western ICELAND. The current then continues north to Scandinavia and England, circling around to Spain and Portugal, where it cools down and dissipates. The Gulf Stream has been called “the great river within the ocean.”
The Gulf Stream may be observed as it crosses the Atlantic. Its water is a dark gray-blue whereas other water surrounding it is gray-green. This results from the relative lack of minerals and plankton. For great stretches, the Gulf Stream is about 100 miles wide and a mile deep. As it leaves the Gulf of Mexico, its temperature is 80 degrees. The average speed of the Gulf Stream is four knots, which decreases as it branches and widens. It makes the climate milder along its course and creates the unique patterns of rainfall in eastern North America.
Italian mariner CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS, exploring for Spain, was one of the first Europeans to use the Gulf Stream in navigation. The winds and other ocean currents that propelled him to the Caribbean Sea in 1492 presented an obstacle for his return trip to Spain the next year. Rather than sail back into them, he headed northward and rode the Gulf Stream. In 1513, Spanish conquistador JUAN PONCE DE LEÓN explored the regions where the current originates. In the northeast, the Gulf Stream worked against sailing ships traveling westward from Europe to the northern reaches of North America, delaying extensive exploration of those regions, even as it aided them on their return Atlantic crossings. Whaling captains in colonial New England knew of the Gulf Stream as an area of no whales.