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Atlantic Ocean, body of salt water covering approximately one-fifth of Earth’s surface and separating the continents of Europe and Africa to the east from those of North and South America to the west. The ocean’s name, derived from Greek mythology, means the “Sea of Atlas.” It is second in size to the Pacific Ocean.


Rocky coast of Labrador, Canada, on the Labrador Sea, an embayment of the northwestern Atlantic Ocean.

The Atlantic is, generally speaking, S-shaped and narrow in relation to its length. The area of the Atlantic without its dependent seas is approximately 31,568,000 square miles (81,760,000 square km), and with them its area is about 32,870,000 square miles (85,133,000 square km). It has an average depth (with its seas) of 11,962 feet (3,646 metres) and a maximum depth of 27,493 feet (8,380 metres) in the Puerto Rico Trench, north of the island of Puerto Rico.


Elements of the continental margin
Elements of the continental margin.
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As the continents are approached and the rugged Mid-Atlantic Ridge is left behind, an abyssal plain first is encountered, followed by the smooth, undulating surface of the continental rise. These broad embankments, which lie at depths of some 8,000 to 15,000 feet (2,400 to 4,500 metres) at the foot of continents, reach more than 300 miles (500 km) in width off northwestern Africa, Angola, Argentina, and the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. In other areas they are exceedingly narrow. Millions of years of weathering, erosion, and riverine sediment deposition have contributed to creating the sloping continental rises that are characteristic of the Atlantic basin. It is beneath these slopes—in accumulations 10,000 to 50,000 feet (3,000 to 15,000 metres) thick—that some of the largest potential reserves on Earth of petroleum, natural gas, and coal are found.

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The Lesser Antilles and the South Sandwich Islands form large unstable island arcs, where the greatest depths of the Atlantic are found in steep-sided, narrow gashes that drop to more than 25,000 feet (7,600 metres) below sea level and more than 10,000 feet (3,000 metres) below the floors of adjacent basins. Depths greater than 13,000 feet (4,000 metres) occur in the Caribbean basin, which has numerous shallow and several deep connections with the open ocean, and in a few parts of the Mediterranean Sea, which communicates with the Atlantic only through the Strait of Gibraltar. The strait is about 8 miles (13 km) wide at its narrowest point, and the maximum depth on its sill (submarine ridge between basins) is only a little more than 1,000 feet (300 metres). The partial isolation of the large seas adjacent to the Mediterranean has a profound effect on the conditions in the seas themselves as well as in the open ocean.