What is Oceanography and What Does an Oceanographer Do?


That branch of science which deals with the physical and biological properties of the ocean and the various phenomena related to it is known as oceanography. It is the branch of Geography that studies the ocean and is also referred to as oceanology.

Oceanography, as the name suggests, is that particular discipline of knowledge that is concerned with the oceans and includes within its scope the boundary line or an outer limit of oceans, of their magnitude and depth, the physical constituents and chemical quality of their waters, marine biological life, and the type of natural resources found there.

According to Wikipedia,

Oceanography (compound of the Greek words ὠκεανός meaning “ocean” and γράφω meaning “write”), also known as oceanology, is the branch of Geography that studies the ocean. It covers a wide range of topics, including ecosystem dynamics; ocean currents, waves, and geophysical fluid dynamics; plate tectonics and the geology of the sea floor; and fluxes of various chemical substances and physical properties within the ocean and across its boundaries.

Derived from the Greek words ‘Oceanus,’ a Greek water god and ‘to record or write’ Oceanography can very generally be understood as the record of what the ocean holds. It covers a wide range of ocean environment zones including the dynamic ecosystem, movement of ocean currents, formation of waves.

Oceanography studies the naturally happening, large-scale drifts on the Earth, the mobility of fluids in the ocean known as geophysical fluid dynamics; plate tectonics or the movements of the large sections that form the ocean floor and the processes of land formation or geology of the sea bed. The ocean experiences numerous variabilities of various chemical substances present in its water-body.

The physical properties within the ocean and beyond its boundaries also affect the ocean. These changes are the subject matter of oceanography. Oceanography is an amalgamation of diverse topics and oceanographers reflect multiple disciplines like biology, chemistry, geology and physics that interrelate to expand knowledge of the world oceans and the processes within.

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The areas which Oceanography brings under its focus is the deep sea and the shallow coastal regions. The oceans of the world are not isolated from the rest of the physical features of the world. They are influenced by and influence the atmosphere, the continents and the frozen water part of the Earth system called the cryosphere.

Together they form a harmonious whole, absorbing the sun’s rays for energy. It also receives energy from tides caused by the pull of the moon, the sun and planets. The Earth’s interior also radiates heat. Oceanography is inclusive of the disciplines that analyse the workings of marine life, ecosystems and ocean circulation.

Specialities Within Oceanography

As in all other branches of science, oceanography has specifications and specialisations within it.

Biological Oceanography

Biological oceanography has as its subject matter the organisms which live in the ocean. It studies their behavioral patterns, their food habits and their breeding, and how they affect larger marine creatures. All marine organisms are affected by environmental changes, change in temperature and in recent times by pollution. It studies the plankton which is food to many marine creatures and is significant in maintaining the global carbon cycle.

Chemical oceanography

The main aim of chemical oceanography is to study the composition of sea water. It scrutinizes the chemical processes and reactions that ocean water has when interacted upon by changes in atmospheric conditions and their impact on marine plants and animals large and small. The ocean is rich in minerals and nutrients found in ocean flora. Their work is to identify those beneficial ocean resources that can be used as medicines for many critical ailments.

Geological oceanography

This is studying the structure of the ocean floor, exploring the ocean bed, and taking cognizance of what changes in the physical structure formed the valleys, the mountains and the canyons. Geological oceanography is a historical survey through millions of years.

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Through sampling, they look at millions of years of history of physical movements like volcanic movements that constructed the sea-floor. The ocean floor may have magma from volcanic eruptions and crustal formation. Geological oceanography helps us to understand how the ocean floor was gradually formed and the interrelationship between the ocean water and the ocean bed.

Physical oceanography

That branch of oceanography which study the physical conditions and physical processes within the ocean is physical oceanography. Its principle focal area such as waves, currents, the vortex created eddies, and tides; the transport of sand on and off beaches; coastal erosion; and the interactions of the atmosphere and the ocean.

They examine deep currents, the ocean-atmosphere relationship that influences weather and climate, the transmission of light and sound through water, and the ocean’s interactions with its boundaries at the sea floor and the coast.

What Does an Oceanographer Do?

The main aim of Oceanographers is to unravel the mysteries of the ocean. They direct their work towards the practical problems that marine life face and concentrates on scientific discoveries about the related to the ocean.

Ocean water movements affects climatic conditions that are both helpful and harmful to inland life and property. Without oceans there would not be any water cycle, no rain and the earth would lose it precious vegetation. This would reduce the earth into an arid desert.  Oceanographers have the important task of following the circulation of water, their landward movement and their possibility of generating rain clouds.

Along with meteorologist the oceanographers provide information of upcoming cyclones, tornadoes, tsunami and hurricanes, endangering coastal populations. This is crucial when we consider that about 1/2 of the worlds’ population are sea coast dwellers or depend on the sea for their livelihood.

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Alternatively, the ocean bed is a storehouse of food and nutrients, of natural gas, besides providing most of the heat and balancing the climate including rainfall. The oceanographers task is to closely monitor the changes which occur on the surface of the ocean and in the deeper levels to forecast climatic changes and to mark areas for availability of natural resources.

Although there are so many specializations, none of these departments are watertight compartments. On the contrary they are all intimately interdependent and a successful oceanography evolves when the findings from the different aspects are compared, contrasted and finally organised into a complete picture to understand processes within it.

Where Does the Oceanographer Work?

The planet earth is ¾ water. This means that the earth’s biosphere has 70%of water cover. An oceanographer is expected to work on field because fieldwork is the most crucial, important and daunting part of oceanography. Consequently, an oceanographer will be generally working in and around ocean areas, in underwater laboratories or in island areas.  They also travel across the oceans to locate peculiarities in ocean behavioral pattern.

Since the ocean impacts the global climate it falls on the oceanographer to closely scrutiny changes in ocean movement which means they have to travel extensively, and often in remote areas to get the actual picture. Oceanographers work below the surface, on a boat or in submarines to collect information and specimen for research.

Research is an important task of the ocean scientists. They explore the ocean, make enquiries, run experiments, collect data, and then publish their findings to the world. This is of great significance, especially at a time when much of natural resources have been wasted, severe pollution has occurred endangering numerous marine life. The raise in global temperature has a direct impact on the oceans which in turn influences the climatic condition of the earth. So oceanographers need to work as climatologists as well.

Photo by: tpsdave

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