2. Ocean Odyssey


Have you ever looked at our beautiful mountains, rivers, lakes and ocean and wondered how they were formed? Are you curious about what ocean landscape looks like? Is it flat? Is it rocky? How deep is it?    

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What is Oceanography?

If we want to break it down, the term ‘Oceanography’ is the mix of 2 Greek words meaning “ocean” & “write”.

Oceanography has a history over the course of tens of thousands of years. It all started when people would venture off their coastlines on rafts and noticed how factors like the tides and current influence the amount and types of fish they could catch. Granted their understandings were incorporated into tales, myths and legends about the mechanisms of the ocean however it’s these observations that started to get the ball rolling for oceanography.  

By roughly 2,850 years ago naturalists and philosophers were trying to make sense of the ocean. Modern oceanography got kicked started as a legitimate scientific field a little less than 130 years ago with explorers leading expeditions that would take on these bodies of water.

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Oceanography is a wide field of study focused on how differing parts of the ocean interact with each other. There are several areas within this field you could specialize. For instance, you could analyze how pollution interacts with the animal in the ocean- i.e be a marine biologist. Or you could focus on how the chemical balance maintains the health of marine ecosystems. Or you could study how the underwater landscape shapes and influences marine life. You could also research how the physical processes of the oceans such as waves, gyres and tides affect the relationships between the seafloor all the way through to the waves. These areas range from being an biological, chemical, geological to a physical oceanographer. These fields of study overlap with each other and feed off of each other so there are instances when a geological oceanographer would look into how deep currents are related to plate tectonics.

 What is a chemical oceanographer? These scientists like to spend a great deal of time looking at chemical composition in seawater to better understand how it affect the atmosphere. This helps them to analyze ocean currents, the affects of greenhouse gases on global warming, pollutants in seawater and how ocean acidification disrupts the formation of shells & coral.

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You’d see the typical chemical oceanographer using data collected from the ocean to pursue questions like what toxic fluids are being released from the ocean floor? Or what is the differing levels of acidity in different areas of the ocean.

They can be found working as consultants for government agencies for creating conservation policies or at university labs or out in the field gathering samples.

What is a geological oceanographer?  A geological oceanographer would want to investigate how plate tectonic processes shape our environment. If that’s not enough of a head scratcher, then how about the question concerning whether environmental processes create ocean basins? Geological oceanographers focus their research on the how the landscape of the ocean is created by look at its shape not only in present day but how it may have looked in the past and how it could shift in the future.

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Plate tectonics is vast subject to address. However, a brief summary is that plate tectonics is the major cause of events that shift land both above and below the sea. Essentially plates “float” on top of mantle and depending on the push and pull of these plates creates them to converge and diverge from one another. When this movement occurs it creates land mass to buckle and create mountains and volcanoes or to break open to create trenches or crevasses. This is also what creates earthquakes.

-The creation of ocean basins is associated with plate tectonics as it influences the current spatial configuration. The molten rock that arises when the plates shift creates zones of subduction that shape ocean basins.

What is a physical oceanographer? This field of study is all about how the ocean relates to its boundaries aka land, seafloor & atmosphere. This provides us with information about the weather, climate, current circulation and environmental problems such as global warming harmful algal blooms. Studies could include taking pictures from space to gather this information.

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They ask things like: “How do gyres affect the oceans?” or “How does the global climate affect the coastal and estuarine regions. In asking such questions they learn that gyres are a huge circulating system that is associated with major wind movements. 

They also discover that global warming has a significant impact on the coastal and estuarine regions. This is highlighted in that the sustainability of humans directly affect the health of our oceans that host marine life in areas like the coast and for those young and developing in estuaries. Factors like sewage runoff and overfishing are just a few examples of what negatively impacts these areas. 

What is a biological oceanographer? This field focuses more so on the abundance of biodiversity and how underwater life interact with each other and their environment. They’ll take into note behaviour, species development, relationships and the overall living processes of organisms. Marine biologists and fisheries scientists would fall under the category of biological oceanography. This is a wide overarching field but for instance a scientist in this field could research how a specific species in evolving alongside environmental changes in the ocean such as the influence of climate change. 

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You’d hear biological oceanographers muttering questions about “What are the effects of the decreasing shark population?” or “Is there a chance that there is still Precambrian life in the depths of the oceans?” As less than 10% of our oceans have been explored there is always a chance for new discoveries and inspiring more questions. 

 At one point in time, explorers concluded that there was no life in the deepest and darkest depths of the ocean- a fact that has been proven very wrong. So part of the beauty of oceanography is that truly anything is possible. 

What does an oceanographer look like?

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Jacques Cousteau: A world renowned French oceanographer, researcher, filmmaker and undersea explorer. He had a life long fascination with water since age 4, He nearly lost his life. In 1933 and as part of his recovery he would swim in the Mediterranean Sea to help his healing limbs. A friend gave him a pair of goggles in which allowed him see the world under the sea and needless to say he got hooked! He went on to take part on expeditions to research shipwrecks, create iconic films about the deep sea (in which he invented an underwater camera) and even was an underwater spy for the French Resistance movement in which he documents troop movements earning him several medals. Later on in life he produced the famous TV serious The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau for 9 seasons.

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Sylvia Earle: She is an oceanographer, scuba diver and research scientist. She has dived in all 5 oceans around the world and is a major force in the studies of establishing marine protected areas.  She set a world record for the deepest woman’s dive. She is also the first woman to be the chief scientist at the U.S National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She is also a National Geographic explorer since 1998. Even in her 80s Sylvia continues to work on her Mission Blue project that promotes MPAs.  

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James Cameron: Have you heard of Titanic? How about Avatar? Well the man behind the magic James Cameron is on the list of established oceanographers thanks to his research of the deep sea; logging more than 3,000 hours underwater. He is also an Explorer-in-Residence at National Geographic who has set the record for exploring Earth’s deepest realm: Marianas Trench. He is the first human to reach the 11 km deep valley as he went to collect data.

Questions for your Junior Biologists:

  1. Do these fields within oceanography ever overlap ? Yes absolutely! Frequently there is overlap of specializations as they are all interconnected. For example, a geological oceanographer may look into the pH levels to see if it has an effect on the appearance of a rock formation.
  2. How are gyres related to the weather? Gyres are a huge circulating system that is associated with major wind movements. As this is a major force that is known to be the conveyor belt of ocean waters thus influencing the oceans all over the world. It helps to regulate the oceans be it its temperature, keeping a flow of nutrients or regulating salinity.
  3.  Where do you find oceanographers at work? The answer to this question varies. Oceanographers can be found out in the field collecting samples in the ocean, or working in the lab analyzing and logging information or even in the office typing up a journal of their findings or better yet they're drafting proposals to receive funding for the next expedition. It depends on their line of work and the priorities associated with their particular role.
    Do you have any questions for Club Volunteers or our Coordinator, Jordan ? Ask away on our Discussion Board!


-Check out some oceanography quizzes and trivia here 

-Follow up on James Cameron's Deep Sea adventure as he completes a solo journey into the deep sea here

-See what the women in oceanography are achieving here  

-Complete a citizen's project focused on oceanography here

Learning Objectives

-Acknowledge the differences and similarities between chemical, geological, physical and biological oceanographers. 

-Understand the role of each specialization within oceanography.

-Learn the type of questions that pertains to each field of oceanography.

-Observe those who have peaked in the field of oceanography. 

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