Caribbean Sea

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Caribbean Sea

Caribbean Sea (kârˌĭbēˈən, kərĭbˈēən), tropical sea, c.970,000 sq mi (2,512,950 sq km), arm of the Atlantic Ocean, Central America. It is bordered on the N and E by the West Indies archipelago, on the S by South America, and on the W by the Central American isthmus. The Caribbean is linked to the Gulf of Mexico by the Yucatán Channel; to the Atlantic by many straits, of which the Windward Channel and Mona Passage are the most important; and to the Pacific Ocean by the Panama Canal. The Magdalena is the largest river entering the sea; Lake Maracaibo is its largest embayment.

Geology and Climate

Geologically, the Caribbean Sea consists of two main basins separated by a broad, submarine plateau. Cayman Trench, a trench between Cuba and Jamaica, contains the Caribbean's deepest point (24,721 ft/7,535 m below sea level). The Caribbean's water is clear, warm (75℉/24℃), and less salty than the Atlantic; the basin has a very low tidal range (c.1 ft/.3 m). The Caribbean Sea has a counterclockwise current; water enters through the Lesser Antilles, is warmed, and exits via the Yucatán Channel, where it forms the Gulf Stream. Volcanic activity and earthquakes are common in the Caribbean, as are destructive hurricanes that originate over the sea or in the Atlantic.


Petroleum, iron ore, bauxite, sugar, coffee, and bananas are the main local products traded on the sea. Economically, the region is dependent on U.S. and European patronage and a large tourism industry. The Caribbean Sea has also acted as a barrier, isolating the islands and preventing the mingling of peoples on the scale characteristic of Latin America. In the 1990s, however, the increased need for labor due to the growth of tourism attracted immigrants to some of the islands.


After the Caribbean was visited by Christopher Columbus in 1493, Spain claimed the area, and its ships searched for treasure. With the Spanish discovery of the Pacific Ocean in 1513 the Caribbean became the main route of their expeditions and, later, of convoys. Pirates and warships of rival powers preyed on Spanish ships in the Caribbean. Although Spain controlled most of the sea, Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Denmark established colonies on the islands along the eastern fringe. The 1800s brought U.S. ships into the Caribbean, especially after 1848, when many gold-seekers crossed the sea to reach California via Panama.

After unsuccessful French attempts in the late 1800s to build a canal across Panama, the United States, in 1903, assumed control of the project. The 1914 opening of the Panama Canal paved the way for increased U.S. interest and involvement in this strategic sea, sometimes called the “American Mediterranean.” Several Caribbean islands have U.S. military bases, many of which were established during World War II as support bases to protect the Panama Canal. The naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba (est. 1899) is the oldest U.S. Caribbean base.

U.S. policy since the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 has been to exclude foreign powers from the Caribbean; however, in 1959, Cuba became the first country to come under strong foreign (Soviet) influence. U.S. intervention in the affairs of Caribbean countries, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the landing of U.S. marines at Santo Domingo in 1965 and at Grenada in 1983, and the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989, reflects the region's importance in U.S. eyes.


See C. Gibson, Empire's Crossroads (2014).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2022, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Caribbean Sea


(named after the Carib Indians), a partially enclosed sea of the Atlantic Ocean, between Central and South America on the west and south and the Greater and Lesser Antilles on the north and east. In the northwest the Yucatán Channel connects it to the Gulf of Mexico; in the northeast and east it is joined to the Atlantic Ocean by passages through the Antilles; and in the southwest it is joined to the Pacific Ocean by the man-made Panama Canal. Area, 2, 754, 000 sq km. Average depth, 2, 491 m. Average water volume, 6, 860, 000 cu km. The coasts are mountainous in some places and low-lying in others. In the west and near the Antilles the coasts are ringed with coral reefs. The coastline has many indentations; among the gulfs in the west and south are the Gulf of Honduras, the Gulf of Darien, and the Gulf of Venezuela (Maracaibo).

The Caribbean is one of the largest seas of the transition zone. It is separated from the ocean by a system of island arcs of different ages, the youngest being the Lesser Antilles arc, which has volcanoes that are still active. The large islands of Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico with already formed continental crust (the northern part of Cuba) or subcontinental crust make up the older island arcs. The Cayman-Sierra Maestra island arc is also young; it is formed for the most part by the underwater Cayman Ridge, along which runs a deepwater trench (7, 680 m) with the same name. The other underwater mountain ridges (Aves Ridge, Beata Ridge, and the Marcelino sill) are apparently submerged island arcs. They divide the floor of the Caribbean Sea into a number of basins: the Grenada Basin (4, 120 m), Venezuelan Basin (5, 420 m), Colombian Basin (4, 532 m), Bartlett Deep with the Cayman Trench, and the Yucatan Basin (5, 055 m). The floors of the basins have suboceanic type crusts. The bottom deposits are calcareous foraminiferal ooze; in the southwestern part there is weakly manganous calcareous mud; and in the shallow waters there are various types of coral deposits, including numerous reef structures.

The climate is tropical, is influenced by trade-wind circulation, and is characterized by great uniformity. Mean monthly air temperatures vary from 23° to 27°C. Cloud cover is 40–50 percent. The amount of precipitation ranges from 500 mm in the east to 2, 000 mm in the west. Between June and October tropical hurricanes occur in the northern part of the sea. Hydrological conditions are distinguished by great uniformity. Under the influence of the trade winds the surface current moves from the east to the west. Near the coast of Central America it turns northwest and passes through the Yucatan Channel into the Gulf of Mexico. The speed of the current is 1–3 km/hr and up to 6 km/hr near the Yucatan Channel. The Caribbean Sea is an intermediate basin for waters entering from the Atlantic Ocean, which give rise to the Gulf Stream when they leave the Gulf of Mexico and return to the ocean. Mean monthly water temperatures on the surface vary from 25° to 28°C; annual fluctuations are less than 3°C. Salinity is about 36.0 parts per thousand. Water density is 1, 023.5–1, 024.0 kg per cu m. The color of the water varies from light bluish green to green. Tides are primarily irregular and semidiurnal; their height is less than 1 meter. Vertical changes in the hydrological characteristics occur down to depths of 1, 500, m; below this the sea is filled with uniform water entering from the Atlantic Ocean. Its temperature is 4.2°-4.3°C, and the salinity is 34.95–34.97 parts per thousand. The Caribbean Sea is inhabited by sharks, flying fish, sea turtles, and other types of tropical fauna. Sperm and humpback whales are found, and near the island of Jamaica there are seals and manatees.

The Caribbean Sea is very important economically and strategically as the shortest sea route connecting ports of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through the Panama Canal. Among the most important ports are Maracaibo and La Guaira (Venezuela), Cartagena (Colombia), Limon (Costa Rica), Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic), Colon (Panama), and Santiago de Cuba (Cuba).


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Caribbean Sea

[kar·ə′bē·ən ′sē]
One of the largest and deepest enclosed basins in the world, surrounded by Central and South America and the West Indian island chains.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

Caribbean Sea

an almost landlocked sea, part of the Atlantic Ocean, bounded by the Caribbean islands, Central America, and the N coast of South America. Area: 2 718 200 sq. km (1 049 500 sq. miles)
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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