Earth is a spinning planet, and its rotation affects climate, weather, and the ocean through the Coriolis Effect.

Named after the French mathematician Gaspard Gustave de Coriolis (born in 1792), the Coriolis Effect refers to the curved path that objects moving on Earth’s surface appear to follow because of the spinning of the planet.

As Earth turns, points near the equator—countries like Ecuador and Kenya—are moving much faster than places near the planet’s poles. This is because Earth is shaped like a marble: Its circumference is larger near its middle (the equator) than near its top and bottom. All places on Earth experience a day that is about 24 hours long, but points near the equator have to travel longer distances in the same period of time, which means that those places move faster. Scientists say these points have more “angular momentum.” This is why rockets are usually launched from places near the equator, like Cape Canaveral, Florida, United States. Such locations give rockets a large initial speed, which helps them get into orbit using the least possible amount of fuel.

The Coriolis Effect influences wind patterns, which in turn dictate how ocean currents move. Imagine wind near the equator flowing to the north. That wind starts with a certain speed due to Earth’s rotation (near the equator, Earth rotates at a speed of roughly 1,600 kilometers per hour (1,000 miles per hour) from west to east). As the wind travels north toward the North Pole, it moves over parts of Earth that are rotating progressively more slowly. Since the wind retains its angular momentum, it keeps moving from west to east, overtaking the part of Earth turning more slowly below it. As a result, the wind appears to bend to the east (that is, to the right). This is the Coriolis Effect in action. Wind flowing south from the equator would likewise bend to the east.

This effect is responsible for many meteorological and oceanographic phenomena. For instance, due to the Coriolis Effect, hurricanes in the Northern Hemisphere spin in a counterclockwise direction, while hurricanes in the Southern Hemisphere (known as cyclones) spin in a clockwise direction. Ocean-circling currents known as “gyres” also spin in spiral patterns thanks to the Coriolis Effect.

There is an urban legend that water in toilets spins in opposite directions in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres because of the Coriolis Effect. But that isn't true—a toilet bowl is too small for the effect to be observed. Instead, other factors like the shape of the toilet bowl and the direction that the water enters are largely responsible for how the flushing water moves.

Coriolis Effect

Because of the Coriolis Effect, hurricanes spin counterclockwise in the Northern Hemisphere, while these types of storms spin clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere. This Southern Hemisphere storm, approaching Southeast Asia, is spinning in a clockwise direction.

angular momentum
Noun

momentum of a rotating body.

circumference
Noun

distance around the outside of a circle.

Noun

the result of Earth's rotation on weather patterns and ocean currents. The Coriolis effect makes storms swirl clockwise in the Southern hemisphere and counterclockwise in the Northern Hemisphere.

Noun

imaginary line around the Earth, another planet, or star running east-west, 0 degrees latitude.

gyre
Noun

a circular or spiral motion or form.

Noun

study of weather and atmosphere.

oceanography
Noun

the study of Earth’s oceans.