Oceanography in the 21st Century

Robert Stewart
Texas A&M University

Given at the National Marine Educators Association Annual Meeting
Wilmington, North Carolina
21–24 July 2003


Over the past few years I have come to the conclusion that the oceanography taught in the classroom differs greatly from the oceanography done by my colleagues. Very few oceanographers study whales and dolphins. Many study micro, nano, and pico plankton. Few go to sea. Many use data collected by satellites, drifters, and subsea observatories. Few scuba dive. Many are skilled users of computers. SimEarth is far more relevant than the Magic School Bus.

I will introduce to the new worlds of oceanography, earth-system science, and the exciting problems now being worked on by thousands of oceanographers around the world.

Why Teach Oceanography?

What Do We Need to Teach if These Are Our Goals?

What are the major environmental problems?

What are the major environmental problems?

How Are We Doing? Are We Teaching:

This image shows the hydrological cycle: water evaportating from the ocean, raining on land, feeding rivers which return the water to the sea.

We Cannot Understand Global Warming Without Understanding Earth's Carbon Budget

Importance of Microbial Ecology of the Oceans

“Collectively the bacteria of the sea probably consume more oxygen than all other organisms combined, thereby influencing the distribution of oxygen in the sea.” -ZoBell (1944).

“The pelagic food web is microbe-centric...The ‘diatom-copepod-fish’ food web is a relatively minor component.” -Barber & Hilting (2000).

“The microbial food web...has been a major theme of biological oceanography over the past two decades…” - Ducklow (2000).

Do we teach about this marine food web?

Image shows microbial food web in the ocean: phytoplankton absorbing sunlight, zooplankton eating phytoplankton, bacteria consuming living and dead plankton and returning nutrients to the sea as they die. Some carbon sinks to the seafloor.

Importance of Modeling the Oceans

“[Modeling] has become a mainstream activity; it permeates so much of our work that graduate students in the discipline assume it is integral to biological oceanography.” -Barber & Hilting (2000).

“Today's biological oceanography graduate student is more likely to have a model than a microscope” -Barber & Hilting (2000).

“High-speed computers led to an explosion in the 1950s in every branch of physical oceanography” -Munk (2000).

What's Left Out

How Are We Doing? Not Very Well!

Here Is An Example Of A Widely Used College Textbook.

Again I picked Thurman and Barton only because it was handy. It is similar to many other widely used textbooks.

Image shows cover of Thurman's Introduction to Oceanography, and notes that the book has 554 pages, it is not orgainzed around problems, has a few scattered paragraphs on microbial ecology and the carbon cycle. It does not mention drifters, numerical models, paleooceanography or abrupt climate change.

Here Are Examples Of Two Textbooks Recently Adopted By The State Of Texas.

Shows Science Explorer textbook for 6th grade. It has very little on connections between systems. It does have a page on numerical models. No oceanography.


Shows Science Expolorer for 8th grade. Has some connections between systems, nothing on models, role of microbes in climate. Poorly integrated with earlier grades.

Does All This Matter?

Yes. We are turning out tens of thousands of students who want to be marine biologists and study whales. Yet we cannot find enough students who want to study ocean sciences.

Shows many students trying to enter a very small door labled Marine Biology and very few students entering a door labled Ocean Sciences.


Ballard, R. D. (2000). The Eternal Darkness: A Personal History of Deep-Sea Exploration, Princeton University Press.

Barber, R. T. and A. K. Hilting (2000). In: 50 Years of Ocean Discovery. Washington DC: National Academy Press: 11–21.

Broecker, W. S. (2003). "Does the trigger for abrupt climate change reside in the ocean or in the atmosphere." Science 300(5625): 1519–1522.

Ducklow, H. (2000). In: Microbial Ecology of the Oceans. John Wiley: 85–120.

Munk, W. (2000). In: 50 Years of Ocean Discovery. Washington DC: National Academy Press: 44–50.

ZoBell, C. E. and H. C. Upham (1944). Bull. Scripps Inst. Ocean. 5(2): 239–292.

Revised on: 2 August, 2004

Revised on: 26 January, 2005

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