Why do we get an Ekman spiral?

Visualizing an Ekman spiral using a deck of cards.

To state this right upfront: this post will not explain why the surface layer is moving at a 45 degree angle to the wind direction, and if anyone has a great idea for a simple demo for that please let me know! It will also not explain why the layers are turning further and further the deeper down you go. But what I am trying to do today is give an intuitive understanding for why all the theoretical layers in the water column turn in response to the surface layer and hence why an Ekman spiral develops if we accept that the surface layer is turning relative to the wind direction.

Demonstrating the formation of an Ekman spiral using a deck of cards.

You will need a deck of cards. Bonus points if they are “salmon fly” cards like mine (seriously – who could walk past a deck of cards with salmon flies on them? Plus I needed a deck of cards because I was already in Iceland when I realized I wanted to show this demo).

All you do now is put the stack in front of you. Put your hand on the top card, twist gently while applying a little bit of pressure. Voila – your Ekman spiral develops! It is turning the wrong way round, but the main point is that the twist is being transferred downwards from layer to layer and not only the top layer twisting while the other layers stay motionless.

And because people seem to always like movies: