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What Is the Gulf Stream?

The Gulf Stream is a strong ocean current that brings warm water from the Gulf of Mexico into the Atlantic Ocean. It extends all the way up the eastern coast of the United States and Canada.

an illustration of the Gulf Stream beginning in the Gulf of Mexico and ending near the British Isles

The Gulf Stream is an ocean current that carries warm water up the eastern coast of the United states and Canada and on to western Europe.

How does the Gulf Stream impact weather and climate?

This strong current of warm water influences the climate of the east coast of Florida, keeping temperatures there warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer than the other southeastern states. Since the Gulf Stream also extends toward Europe, it warms western European countries as well.

In fact, England is about the same distance from the equator as cold regions of Canada, yet England enjoys a much warmer climate. If it weren’t for the warm water of the Gulf Stream, England would have a much colder climate.

What causes the Gulf Stream?

The Gulf Stream is caused by a large system of circular currents and powerful winds, called an oceanic gyre. There are five oceanic gyres on Earth. The Gulf Stream is part of the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre.

a world map showing the five oceanic gyres and how they impact ocean circulation

This world map shows the five oceanic gyres and how they impact ocean circulation. Credit: NOAA

The ocean is constantly in motion, moving water from place to place via currents. The Gulf Stream brings warm water from the Gulf of Mexico all the way up to the Norwegian Sea. As the warm water comes in, colder, denser water sinks and begins moving south—eventually flowing along the bottom of the ocean all the way to Antarctica.

an animation showing the Gulf Stream sending warm water to the North Atlantic Ocean

This animation shows the Gulf Stream sending warm water to the North Atlantic Ocean, forcing colder water to sink and travel southward. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio

How long have we known about the Gulf Stream?

We’ve known about the Gulf Stream for more than 500 years! In 1513, Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon noted that there was a strong current in this location. A few years later, Ponce de Leon’s ship pilot realized that the Gulf Stream could help speed up the sailing trip from Mexico to Spain.

In the late 18th century, Benjamin Franklin became the first to chart out the path of the Gulf Stream on a map.

A chart of the Gulf Stream created by Benjamin Franklin and James Poupard

A chart of the Gulf Stream created by Benjamin Franklin and James Poupard in 1786. Source: Library of Congress

How do we study the Gulf Stream today?

Today, scientists can study the Gulf Stream from above, using satellites. For example, GOES-R series satellites—short for Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R—collect information about sea surface temperature in the Atlantic Ocean.

Satellite images of sea surface temperature can show the path of the warm Gulf Stream current with great precision. Knowing the sea surface temperature can give scientists information about what is happening in and around the ocean. Changes in this temperature can influence the behavior of fish, cause the bleaching of corals, and affect weather along the coast.

A satellite view of the Gulf Stream from space

A satellite view of the Gulf Stream from space. This image from NOAA’s GOES-East satellite shows sea surface temperature in the waters surrounding the United States. The warm water of the Gulf Stream is shown off the coast of Florida in orange and red. Credit: CIMSS blog