Oceanography Essay

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The term oceanography refers to a descriptive science of the marine environment. Within the study, there is a wide variety of separate fields of scientific study, such as geology (including studies of marine and coastal sediments and studies of submarine tectonic plates and processes that affect coastal land forms), biology (for example, marine zoology, ecology of marine species, and marine microbiology), geography and meteorology (particularly oceanic processes that affect weather and climate), astronomy (the effects of astronomical bodies on tidal forces), physics (including fluid dynamics, currents, the behavior of waves, the effect of temperature on marine waters, and the behavior of sound in water), and, finally, chemistry (for example, the density of marine water bodies and the study of dissolved substances in seawater and chemical pollution in marine waters).

Oceanography can entail studies in the open ocean environment (oceanic) or in the coastal environment (neritic), on the sea bed (benthic) or in open waters (pelagic). Studies of the estuarine environment (enclosed areas where freshwater meets the marine environment) are also covered by the term. As such, oceanography encompasses a very broad field of scientific research.

The physical area encompassed by the field is also substantial, i.e., 71 percent of the world’s surface is covered by oceans, with the Pacific Ocean encompassing an area equal to that of all continents combined and covering half the planet’s surface. The importance of the marine environment is also emphasized when one considers that marine areas actually make up 99 percent of the known biosphere. However, 80 percent of the world’s oceans remain effectively unexplored.

The scholar Rupert Riedl divides the history of exploration of the marine environment into four principal eras. First was the time of seafarers, which began either circa 2500 B.C.E., with the Polynesian exploration of the Pacific, or circa 1200 B.C.E., with the journeys of the Phoenicians. These ancient mariners sailed the eastern Atlantic as far north as the British Isles and as far south as the tip of southern Africa. Later came the expeditions of the Norse explorers to Greenland and North America in the late 10th century, and later still those of famous European explorers such as Columbus and Magellan.

One individual who stands out in this era of exploration is Captain James Cook. Starting in 1768 he made three voyages to map the world’s oceans and landmasses, discovering New Zealand, Tahiti, Australia, and South Georgia; exploring the Southern Ocean; and charting the Hawaiian Islands, the west coast of North America and the Bering Sea. He became the first person to sail in both polar seas. In addition, Cook also recorded important oceanographic information such as ocean depths, prevailing wind directions, surface currents, and water temperatures.

The second era was the era of major oceanographic expeditions. Probably the most famous of these was the British Challenger Expedition (1872-76). Six scientists undertook a four-year voyage on the HMS Challenger to study the chemical composition of seawater and the distribution of marine animals, to record coastal and ocean currents, and to map ocean basins. This expedition made 362 soundings in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, mapped major currents, and collected 7,000 marine specimens. The researchers identified 4,417 species new to science. The data accumulated from the expedition took 20 years to analyze and was published in 50 volumes as the Challenger Reports.

Marine expeditions were followed by the era of marine laboratories and research stations. The oldest marine station in the world was established in Kristineberg, Sweden, in 1830, followed by stations in Concarneau, France (1859), Naples, Italy (1872), St. Andrews, Scotland (1884), and Plymouth, England (1888). These United Kingdom (UK) stations were preceded by the oldest British marine laboratory, the Ark, which was a floating barge converted into a laboratory that was first moored in Scotland at Granton near Edinburgh (1884), then moved to Millport near Glasgow in 1885.

In the United States, the U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries (now known as the National Marine Fisheries Service) began a station at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, which still exists as the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, and in 1888 Alpheus Hyatt established the Woods Hole Laboratory. The current Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution was established in 1930. In 1903 on the West Coast of the United States, a marine biological laboratory was established in San Diego, which in turn became part of the University of California in 1912 and was renamed the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

The fourth era of marine discovery was the era of field studies. This was greatly aided by the invention of the self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA) by Emile Gagan and Jacques Cousteau in 1943. SCUBA allowed researchers to directly observe marine species in their natural environment. However, only about two percent of the ocean’s volume is accessible to scientists using SCUBA equipment; manned submersibles have increased the depths humans have been able to reach to study organisms and features in the field. Remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) have been used underwater since the 1950s and are also an important means by which researchers study oceanographic features and marine organisms. ROVs are unmanned submarine robots with umbilical cables transmitting data between the vehicle and researcher. They have the advantage of being able to operate for longer periods and at greater depths than human divers and do not involve risk to human operators. They are also considerably less expensive to operate than manned submersibles.

Satellites are increasingly being used as another means of gathering data in oceanographic studies. They can be used for mapping marine habitats such as coral reefs, tracking marine life tagged with sensors to determine migratory patterns, and gathering data such as sea surface temperature-which in turn can provide information on currents, cold water upwellings, and climate. Satellites can also observe the color of the ocean, giving information on chlorophyll abundance and, hence, oceanic productivity. It could be argued that we are entering the oceanographic era of remote observational studies.

The scholar Michael Stachowitsch has suggested that there is an additional (current) era of marine/oceanographic research, one in which scientists are studying deteriorated marine ecosystems. He writes that almost all marine ecosystems have been disturbed and damaged by human activities. Indeed, examining the global extent of marine pollution, assessing stocks of marine species depleted by overexploitation, and evaluating the current effects of global warming on oceanographic processes and marine life are all becoming major areas of marine research.


  1. P. Castro and M.E. Huber, Marine Biology, 5th ed. (McGraw-Hill, 2005);
  2. Reidl, “Marine Ecology-A Century of Changes,” Marine Ecology (v.1, 1980);
  3. Stachowitsch, “Research on Intact Marine Ecosystems: A Lost Era,” Marine Pollution Bulletin (v.46, 2003);
  4. A. Sverdrup, A.C. Duxbury, and A.B. Duxbury, An Introduction to the World’s Oceans, 7th ed. (McGraw-Hill, 2003);
  5. V. Thurman and A.P. Trujillo, Introductory Oceanography, 10th ed. (Prentice Hall, 2004).

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