A common use of the term convection leaves out the word "heat" but nevertheless refers to heat convection: that is, the case in which heat is the entity of interest being advected (carried). In one of two major types of heat convection, the heat may be carried passively by fluid motion which would occur anyway without the heating process (a heat transfer process termed loosely as "forced convection"). In the other major type of heat convection, heating itself may cause the fluid motion (via expansion and buoyancy force), while at the same time also causing heat to be transported by this motion of the fluid (a process known loosely as natural convection, or "free convection"). In the latter case, the problem of heat transport (and related transport of other substances in the fluid due to it) is generally more complicated. Both forced and natural types of heat convection may occur together.
When heat is carried by the circulation of fluids due to buoyancy from density changes induced by heating itself, then the process is known as free or natural convective heat transfer.
Familiar examples are the upward flow of air due to a fire or hot object and the circulation of water in a pot that is heated from below.
For a visual experience of natural convection, a glass full of hot water with red food dye may be placed in a fish tank with cold, clear water. The convection currents of the red liquid will be seen to rise and fall, then eventually settle, illustrating the process as heat gradients are dissipated.
In a zero-gravity environment, there can be no buoyancy forces, and thus no natural (free) convection possible, so flames in many circumstances without gravity, smother in their own waste gases. However, flames may be maintained with any type of forced convection (breeze); or (in high oxygen environments in "still" gas environments) entirely from the minimal forced convection that occurs as heat-induced expansion (not buoyancy) of gases allows for ventilation of the flame, as waste gases move outward and cool, and fresh high-oxygen gas moves in to take up the low pressure zones created when flame-exhaust water condenses.
The general term for this phenomenon is gravitational convection. Gravitational heat convection is the same as free convection. However, differential buoyancy forces which cause convection in gravity fields may result from sources of density variations in fluids other than those produced by heat, such as variable composition. For example, diffusion of a source of dry salt downward into wet soil assisted by the mechanism of the fact that saline is heavier than fresh water, is a type of gravitational convection Variable salinity in water and variable water content in air masses, are frequent causes of convection in the oceans and atmosphere, which do not involve heat, or else involve additional compositional density factors other than the density changes from thermal expansion (see thermohaline circulation). Similarly, variable composition within the Earth's interior which has not yet achieved maximal stability and minimal energy (in other words, with densest parts deepest) continues to cause a fraction of the convection of fluid rock and molten metal within the Earth's interior (see below).
Solar radiation also affects the oceans. Warm water from the Equator tends to circulate toward the poles, while cold polar water heads towards the Equator. Oceanic convection is also frequently driven by density differences due to varying salinity, known as thermohaline convection, and is of crucial importance in the global thermohaline circulation. In this case it is quite possible for relatively warm, saline water to sink, and colder, fresher water to rise, reversing the normal transport of heat.
As heat from the inner and outer core heat the lower portion of the mantle, a second set of convective currents form. This mantle convection is extremely slow, as the mantle is a thick semi-solid with the consistency of a very thick paste. This slow convection can take millions of years to complete one cycle.
Neutrino flux measurements from the Earth's core (see kamLAND) show the source of about two-thirds of the heat in the inner core is the radioactive decay of 40K, uranium and thorium. This has allowed plate tectonics on Earth to continue far longer than it would have if it were simply driven by heat left over from Earth's formation; or with heat produced by rearrangement of denser portions to the center of the earth.
If the container contains particles of different sizes, the downward-moving region at the sides is often narrower than the larger particles. Thus, larger particles tend to become sorted to the top of such a mixture.
Convection may happen in fluids at all scales larger than a few atoms. Convection occurs on a large scale in atmospheres, oceans, and planetary mantles. Current movement during convection may be invisibly slow, or it may be obvious and rapid, as in a hurricane. On astronomical scales, convection of gas and dust is thought to occur in the accretion disks of black holes, at speeds which may closely approach that of light.
Convection, especially Rayleigh-Bénard convection, where the convecting fluid is contained by two rigid horizontal plates, is a convenient example of a pattern forming system.
When heat is fed into the system from one direction (usually below), at small values it merely diffuses (conducts) from below upward, without causing fluid flow. As the heat flow is increased, above a critical value of the Rayleigh number, the system undergoes a bifurcation from the stable conducting state to the convecting state, where bulk motion of the fluid due to heat begins. If fluid parameters other than density do not depend significantly on temperature, the flow profile is symmetric, with the same volume of fluid rising as falling. This is known as Boussinesq convection.
As the temperature difference between the top and bottom of the fluid becomes higher, significant differences in fluid parameters other than density may develop in the fluid due to temperature. An example of such a parameter is viscosity, which may begin to significantly vary horizontally across layers of fluid. This breaks the symmetry of the system, and generally changes the pattern of up- and down-moving fluid from stripes to hexagons, as seen at right. Such hexagons are one example of a convection cell.
As the Rayleigh number is increased even further above the value where convection cells first appear, the system may undergo other bifurcations, and other more complex patterns, such as spirals, may begin to appear.