The term 'salinity' is, for oceanographers, usually associated with one of a set of specific measurement techniques. As the dominant techniques evolve, so do different descriptions of salinity. Salinities were largely measured using titration-based techniques before the 1980s. Titration with silver nitrate could be used to determine the concentration of halide ions (mainly chlorine and bromine) to give a chlorinity. The chlorinity was then multiplied by a factor to account for all other constituents. The resulting 'Knudsen salinities' are expressed in units of parts per thousand (ppt or ‰).
The use of electrical conductivity measurements to estimate the ionic content of seawater led to the development of the scale called the practical salinity scale 1978 (PSS-78). Salinities measured using PSS-78 do not have units. The suffix psu or PSU (denoting practical salinity unit) is sometimes added to PSS-78 measurement values. The addition of PSU as a unit after the value is "formally incorrect and strongly discouraged".
In 2010 a new standard for the properties of seawater called the thermodynamic equation of seawater 2010 (TEOS-10) was introduced, advocating absolute salinity as a replacement for practical salinity, and conservative temperature as a replacement for potential temperature. This standard includes a new scale called the reference composition salinity scale. Absolute salinities on this scale are expressed as a mass fraction, in grams per kilogram of solution. Salinities on this scale are determined by combining electrical conductivity measurements with other information that can account for regional changes in the composition of seawater. They can also be determined by making direct density measurements.
A sample of seawater from most locations with a chlorinity of 19.37 ppt will have a Knudsen salinity of 35.00 ppt, a PSS-78 practical salinity of about 35.0, and a TEOS-10 absolute salinity of about 35.2 g/kg. The electrical conductivity of this water at a temperature of 15 °C is 42.9 mS/cm.
Limnologists and chemists often define salinity in terms of mass of salt per unit volume, expressed in units of mg per litre or g per litre. It is implied, although often not stated, that this value applies accurately only at some reference temperature. Values presented in this way are typically accurate to the order of 1%. Limnologists also use electrical conductivity, or "reference conductivity", as a proxy for salinity. This measurement may be corrected for temperature effects, and is usually expressed in units of μS/cm.
A river or lake water with a salinity of around 70 mg/L will typically have a specific conductivity at 25 °C of between 80 and 130 μS/cm. The actual ratio depends on the ions present. The actual conductivity usually changes by about 2% per degree Celsius, so the measured conductivity at 5 °C might only be in the range of 50–80 μS/cm.
Direct density measurements are also used to estimate salinities, particularly in highly saline lakes. Sometimes density at a specific temperature is used as a proxy for salinity. At other times an empirical salinity/density relationship developed for a particular body of water is used to estimate the salinity of samples from a measured density.
Marine waters are those of the ocean, another term for which is euhaline seas. The salinity of euhaline seas is 30 to 35 ppt. Brackish seas or waters have salinity in the range of 0.5 to 29 ppt and metahaline seas from 36 to 40 ppt. These waters are all regarded as thalassic because their salinity is derived from the ocean and defined as homoiohaline if salinity does not vary much over time (essentially constant). The table on the right, modified from Por (1972), follows the "Venice system" (1959).
In contrast to homoiohaline environments are certain poikilohaline environments (which may also be thalassic) in which the salinity variation is biologically significant. Poikilohaline water salinities may range anywhere from 0.5 to greater than 300 ppt. The important characteristic is that these waters tend to vary in salinity over some biologically meaningful range seasonally or on some other roughly comparable time scale. Put simply, these are bodies of water with quite variable salinity.
Highly saline water, from which salts crystallize (or are about to), is referred to as brine.
Salinity is an ecological factor of considerable importance, influencing the types of organisms that live in a body of water. As well, salinity influences the kinds of plants that will grow either in a water body, or on land fed by a water (or by a groundwater). A plant adapted to saline conditions is called a halophyte. A halophyte which is tolerant to residual sodium carbonate salinity are called glasswort or saltwort or barilla plants. Organisms (mostly bacteria) that can live in very salty conditions are classified as extremophiles, or halophiles specifically. An organism that can withstand a wide range of salinities is euryhaline.
Salt is expensive to remove from water, and salt content is an important factor in water use (such as potability). Increases in salinity have been observed in lakes and rivers in the United States, due to common road salt and other salt de-icers in runoff.
The degree of salinity in oceans is a driver of the world's ocean circulation, where density changes due to both salinity changes and temperature changes at the surface of the ocean produce changes in buoyancy, which cause the sinking and rising of water masses. Changes in the salinity of the oceans are thought to contribute to global changes in carbon dioxide as more saline waters are less soluble to carbon dioxide. In addition, during glacial periods, the hydrography is such that a possible cause of reduced circulation is the production of stratified oceans. In such cases, it is more difficult to subduct water through the thermohaline circulation.