Satellite image of a dust storm over East Asia on 2 March 2008
The Yellow Sea, excluding the Bohai, extends by about 960 km (600 mi) from north to south and about 700 km (430 mi) from east to west; it has an area of approximately 380,000 km2 (150,000 sq mi) and a volume of about 17,000 km3 (4,100 cu mi). Its depth is only 44 m (144 ft) on average, with a maximum of 152 m (499 ft). The sea is a flooded section of continental shelf that formed after the last ice age (some 10,000 years ago) as sea levels rose 120 m (390 ft) to their current levels. The depth gradually increases from north to south. The sea bottom and shores are dominated by sand and silt brought by the rivers through the Bohai Sea (Liao River, Yellow River, Hai He) and the Korea Bay (Yalu River). These deposits, together with sand storms are responsible for the yellowish colour of the water referenced in the sea's name.
The area has cold, dry winters with strong northerly monsoons blowing from late November to March. Average January temperatures are −10 °C (14 °F) in the north and 3 °C (37 °F) in the south. Summers are wet and warm with frequent typhoons between June and October. Air temperatures range between 10 and 28 °C (50 and 82 °F). The average annual precipitation increases from about 500 mm (20 in) in the north to 1,000 mm (39 in) in the south. Fog is frequent along the coasts, especially in the upwelling cold-water areas.
The sea has a warm cyclone current, forming part of the Kuroshio Current, which diverges near the western part of Japan and flows northward into the Yellow Sea at the speed of below 0.8 km/h (0.50 mph). Southward currents prevail near the sea coast, especially in the winter monsoon period.
Brown sediment spills out into the Yellow Sea from rivers in eastern China and Korea. The nutrients in the sediment may be responsible for the bloom of phytoplankton seen as blue-green swirls.
The water temperature is close to freezing in the northern part in winter, so drift ice patches and continuous ice fields form and hinder navigation between November and March. The water temperature and salinity are homogeneous across the depth. The southern waters are warmer at 6–8 °C (43–46 °F). In spring and summer, the upper layer is warmed up by the sun and diluted by the fresh water from rivers, while the deeper water remains cold and saline. This deep water stagnates and slowly moves south. Commercial bottom-dwelling fishes are found around this mass of water, especially at its southern part. Summer temperatures range between 22 and 28 °C (72 and 82 °F). The average salinity is relatively low, at 30‰ in the north to 33–34‰ in the south, dropping to 26‰ or lower near the river deltas. In the southwest monsoon season (June to August) the increased rainfall and runoff further reduce the salinity of the upper sea layer. Water transparency increases from about 10 meters (33 ft) in the north up to 45 meters (148 ft) in the south.
Tides are semidiurnal, i.e. rise twice a day. Their amplitude varies between about 0.9 and 3 meters (3.0 and 9.8 ft) at the coast of China. Tides are higher at the Korean Peninsula, typically ranging between 4 and 8 meters (13 and 26 ft) and reaching the maximum in spring. The tidal system rotates in a counterclockwise direction. The speed of the tidal current is generally less than 1.6 km/h (0.99 mph) in the middle of the sea, but may increase to more than 5.6 km/h (3.5 mph) near the coasts. The fastest tides reaching 20 km/h (12 mph) occur in the Myeongnyang Strait between the Jindo Island and the Korean Peninsula.
The tide-related sea level variations result in a land pass 2.9 km (1.8 mi) long and 10–40 meters (33–131 ft) wide opening for approximately an hour between Jindo and Modo islands. The event occurs about twice a year, at the beginning of May and in the middle of June. It had long been celebrated in a local festival called "Jindo Sea Parting Festival", but was largely unknown to the world until 1975, when the French ambassador Pierre Randi described the phenomenon in a French newspaper.
The sea is rich in seaweed (predominantly kelp, Laminaria japonica), cephalopods, crustaceans, shellfish, clams, and especially in blue-green algae which bloom in summer and contribute to the water color (see image above). For example, the seaweed production in the area was as high as 1.5 million tonnes in 1979 for China alone. The abundance of all these plant and animal species increases toward the south and indicates a high sea productivity, accounting for the diversity of fish species and high fish yield from the sea. Several species of goby new to science have been discovered recently in the Yellow Sea.
The southern part of the Yellow Sea, including the entire west coast of Korea, contains a 10 km-wide (6.2 mi) belt of intertidalmudflats, which has the total area of 2,850 km2 (1,100 sq mi) and is maintained by 4–10 m (13–33 ft). Those flats consist of highly productive sediments with a rich benthic fauna and are of great importance for migratorywaders and shorebirds. Surveys show that the area is the single most important site for migratory birds on northward migration in the entire East Asian – Australasian Flyway, with more than 35 species occurring in internationally significant numbers. Two million birds, at minimum, pass through at the time, and about half that number use it on southward migration. About 300,000 migrating birds were transiting annually only through the Saemangeum tidal flat area. This estuary was however dammed by South Korea in 1991–2006 that resulted in drying off the land. Land reclamation also took 65% of the intertidal area in China between the 1950s and 2002, and there are plans to reclaim a further 45%.
The coasts of the Yellow Sea are very densely populated, at approximately 250 inhabitants per square kilometer (650/sq mi). The sea waters had been used for fishing by the Chinese, Korean and Japanese ships for centuries. Especially rich in fish are the bottom layers. About 200 fish species are exploited commercially, especially sea bream, croakers, lizard fishes, prawns, cutlassfish, horse mackerel, squid, eel, filefish, Pacific herring, chub mackerel, flounder and jellyfish. The intensity of fishing has been gradually increasing for China and Korea and decreasing for Japan. For example, the production volumes for China rose from 619,000 tonnes in 1985 to 1,984,400 tonnes in 1996. All species are overfished, however, and while the total catchments are rising, the fish population is continuously declining for most species.
Oil exploration has been successful in the Chinese and North Korean portions of the sea, with the proven and estimated reserves of about 9 and 20 billion tonnes, respectively. However, the study and exploration of the sea is somewhat hindered by insufficient sharing of information between the involved countries. China initiated collaborations with foreign oil companies in 1979, but this initiative declined later.
A major oil spill occurred on 16 July 2010 when a pipeline exploded at the north-east port of Dalian, causing a wide-scale fire and spreading about 1,500 tonnes of oil over the sea area of 430 km2 (170 sq mi). The port had been closed and fishing suspended until the end of August. Eight hundred fishing boats and 40 specialized vessels were mobilized to relieve the environmental damage.
State of the environment
The Yellow Sea is considered among the most degraded marine areas on earth. Loss of natural coastal habitats due to land reclamation has resulted in the destruction of more than 60% of tidal wetlands around the Yellow Sea coastline in approximately 50 years. Rapid coastal development for agriculture, aquaculture and industrial development are considered the primary drivers of coastal destruction in the region. This degree of loss of area, widespread pollution, algal blooms and declines of invertebrate and vertebrate fauna have resulted in the classification of this ecosystem as endangered.
In addition to land reclamation, the Yellow Sea ecosystem is facing several other serious environmental problems. Pollution is widespread and deterioration of pelagic and benthic habitat quality has occurred, and harmful algal blooms frequently occur. Invasion of introduced species are having a detrimental effect on the Yellow Sea environment. There are 25 intentionally introduced species and 9 unintentionally introduced species in the Yellow Sea Large Marine Ecosystem. Declines of biodiversity, fisheries and ecosystem services in the Yellow Sea are widespread.
The tidal flats of the Yellow Sea are considered Endangered.
Location of Korean Peace Zones
On 1 November 2018, officials from South Korea's Ministry of National Defense confirmed that "peace zones" had been established by the North and South Korean militaries in the Yellow Sea area that touches the North and South Korean demarcation line. A buffer zone was also created in the Yellow Sea's Northern Limit Line (NLL).
^M. J. King, et al. Twinning of Jindo Grand Bridge, Republic of Korea in Current and future trends in bridge design, construction and maintenance 2: safety, economy, sustainability and aesthetics; proceedings of the international conference organized by the Institution of Civil Engineers and held in Hong Kong on 25–26 April 2001 ISBN0-7277-3091-6 pp. 175, 177
^Barter, M.A. (2002). Shorebirds of the Yellow Sea – importance, threats and conservation status. Wetlands International Global Series Vol. 9. International Wader Studies Vol. 12. Canberra ISBN90-5882-009-2
^Barter, M.A. (2005). Yellow Sea – driven priorities for Australian shorebird researchers. pp. 158–160 in: "Status and Conservation of Shorebirds in the East Asian – Australasian Flyway". Proceedings of the Australasian Shorebird Conference, 13–15 December 2003, Canberra, Australia. International Wader Studies 17. Sydney.