What Every Student Ought to Know About the Oceans
Texas A&M University
Given at the National Marine Educators Association
Saint Petersburg, Florida
19–22 July 2004
I have been working with the National Marine Educators Association's
ad-hoc Committee on National Standards and with six senior oceanographers to
to know about the oceans on graduation. The scientists have produced a document
which will be opened for comments and revisions by all who have an interest
in the topic, especially teachers. What is appropriate, what is not? Is it
complete? At what level ought the material be taught? The document will eventually
be used as a supplement to the national standards.
The senior oceanographers include Wolf Berger (Scripps Institution of Oceanography),
Daniel Baden (U. North Carolina, Willmington), Penny Chisholm (MIT), Ted
Moore (University of Michigan), George Philander (Princeton University),
Thomas (RSMAS, U. Miami). All have helped produce summary documents of knowledge
in their field, and they are widely respected by their colleagues.
What Should Students Know About the Ocean?
- National standards provide little guidance.
- The oceans are mentioned in only 4 of 100 pages in the National
Science Education Standards.
- Lacking guidance, we teach them anything and everything.
- In my experience, oceanography in schools has changed little in 150 years.
But oceanography in the laboratory is much different.
- Jules Verne would feel at home in today's classroom.
- He could read, understand, and appreciate much of what is in
- He would be perplexed by what he would see in laboratories.
The figure below, from Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,
shows divers studying the sea floor, sea life, and geology.
The next figure, similar to many found in recent oceanography textbooks, shows
divers observing the same things as in the Jules Verne figure.
What Should Students Know About the Ocean?
- To help provide some guidance, I have worked with the NMEA Committee
on National Standards to obtain input from six other senior research oceanographers.
- We have written a document listing:
- 100 important concepts and facts students
ought to know about the ocean,
- Plus a shorter list of 35 major concepts.
- The next step is to work with you, the teachers, and with the Centers
for Ocean Science Education Excellence, to
- Refine the list,
- Coordinate with other national standards, and
- Assign concepts to the appropriate grade level.
Contributing to the Report
University of North Carolina, Wilmington, Center for Marine Science
Berger. University of California, San Diego
Scripps Institution of Oceanography
- Penny Chisholm. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Earth System Initiative
Moore. University of Michigan
Department of Geological Sciences
Philander. Princeton University
Department of Geosciences
Texas A&M University
- Gary Thomas. University of Miami
Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science
Why Teach Oceanography?
- To produce informed citizens able to vote wisely on important environmental
- To produce future scientists and educators.
- To satisfy student's curiosity.
What Do We Need To Teach If These Are Our Goals?
- Both citizens and scientists have similar needs for information.
- Important environmental problems effecting society also attract the attention
- The major problems are:
- Climate change and the role of the ocean.
- El Niño and the role of the ocean in
- Fisheries and sustainable yield.
- Coastal development and pollution.
- Climate change is by far the most important.
- It will influence the lives of all our students.
- 19th century oceanography emphasized:
- Animals, currents, shape of the seafloor;
- Man the explorer, ships at sea;
- Static systems unchanged for millions of years.
- 21st century oceanography emphasizes:
- Dynamic, interacting systems, Abrupt climate change, global
- Microbes, the carbon cycle, El Niño;
- Machine the explorer, robotics;
- Computer models and analysis.
|Static, separate systems:
||Dynamic interacting systems:
|Hydrosphere, lithosphere, atmosphere.
||Earth system science.
|Animals living in niches.
||Animals creating niches.
|Plants and animals.
|Inanimate earth indifferent to life.
||Living earth formed by life, and modified by
|Men on ships, and in space.
||ROV, AUV, robotic satellites.
||Subsea observing systems.
- Everything influences everything else.
- Ocean processes control the Earth's carbon cycle.
- Biological, chemical, geological, and physical processes all
- The biosphere strongly influences the geosphere, climate, and atmosphere.
- The hydrological cycle drives the atmospheric circulation.
- The ocean's deep circulation strongly influences climate.
- Positive feedbacks sometimes lead to abrupt climate change.
- Carbon Cycle: Carbon burial in oxygen-poor regions of the ocean
and in marshes along the coast:
- Decreases CO2 in the atmosphere,
- Leads to build-up of oxygen in the atmospheric over millions
- Hydrological Cycle: Rain falling on land comes mostly from the tropical
- Energy Cycle: Sunlight is absorbed mostly by the ocean.
- It release latent heat (water vapor) to keep cool.
- Release of latent heat, by rain, mostly in the tropics, drives
the much of the atmospheric circulation.
- El Niño/La Niña varies where
the latent heat is released, modulating the atmospheric circulation.
What's wrong with this picture of the hydrological cycle?
Consider the following illustration of the hydrological cycle.
I picked this illustration only because it was handy. It is typical of dozens
of others in textbooks.
Why is it wrong?
- It shows an upper-mid-latitude area. Evaporation
is mostly in the tropics, not mid latitudes.
- It shows mostly land,
but evaporation is mostly from the seas. The seas cover much more of
- So this simple picture misleads students. It fails to show the
correct relationships among the coupled earth systems.
The picture would be more accurate if it showed a tropical
island, such as Hawaii, with the land area smaller and the ocean area larger
Oceans and Climate
- What is the role of the ocean in climate?
- We can't understand
global warming without understanding the ocean.
- 40 times more CO2 in ocean than in the atmosphere.
- Most of the solar radiation reaching earth is absorbed in the
- Changes in deep circulation have produced abrupt climate change
many times over the past 50,000 years.
- Can we produce accurate numerical models of coupled ocean/atmosphere system.
The figure shows earth's carbon cycle, highlighting the role of the oceans
and the vast quantities of carbon stored in the ocean's waters, and the large
fluxes into and out of the ocean, which are far larger than the input of carbon
into the air by the burning of fossil fuels.
Earth's Carbon Cycle
Abrupt Climate Change
- Who are key players in carbon cycle of earth?
- Microbes dominate. There are more bacteria in the ocean than
stars in the universe.
- There are a thousand times more viruses than bacteria.
- Phytoplankton include bacteria and protists.
- Can we describe the microbial ecology of the ocean?
- What eats what?
- What influences dissolved organic carbon?
- 1000s of species of microbes,
- 99.9% of microbes have never been cultured,
- Must use genetic information to identify microbes.
The Oceanic Biological Pump
Microbial Food Web
The following image shows the microbial food web, which dominates the fluxes
of carbon, nitrogen, and other elements in the ocean.
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
- “High-speed computers led to an explosion
in the 1950s in every branch of physical oceanography”
— Munk (2000).
Oceanographers use Computers
What's Left Out
- People on ships.
- They are very expensive ~ $20K/day.
- Always have been. Only rich countries could afford ocean-going
- But, now there are cheaper alternatives.
- Ocean observatories.
- AUV/ROVs replacing manned submersibles.
- Flocks of drifters.
- Clouds of satellites.
- Coming soon: gliders.
- Cost of information is plunging. Global, daily data sets are now
- Fewer and fewer oceanographers go to sea to obtain data such as data from
Instead of going to sea, many oceanographers, such as Lee Fu below, receive
data from satellites, drifters, and other autonomous systems at sea.
"Nowadays, at the forefront of oceanographic research,
manned submersibles have probably just passed their peak of paradigm reign,
like railroads many
"Now we can cut the ultimate tether—the one that binds our
questioning intellect to vulnerable human flesh. Through telepresence, a
mind detaches itself from the
body’s restrictions and enters the abuss with ease, and with lightening-quick
fiber optic nerves. ...
"Our minds can now go it alone, leaving the body behind." — Ballard
The Next Generation of Oceanographers
John Breen, of the Topex/Poseidon Flight Contral Team at NASA's Jet Propulsion
Laboratory, shown at work below, belongs to the new generation of oceanographers.
Working at a computer terminal, he helps collect oceanographic data from
the Topex/Poseidon satellite orbiting 1300 km above the ocean.
A New generation of Ocean Educators
Bill Patzert, shown below in his office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory,
educations billions throughout the world about El Nino through Cable Network
How Are We Doing? Not Very Well!
- Textbooks are not organized around problems.
- Systems approach is missing.
- Links between systems are missing.
- No mention of microbial ecology.
- No discussion of numerical modeling.
- No mention that whales, sharks, fish, and turtles are gone.
- No mention of the tragedy of the commons.
Public Policy and Science
- Scientists and policy makers solve problems in very different ways.
- Science seeks the one right answer.
- Policy seeks an acceptable answer from many possible solutions.
- Confusing the two approaches is very common.
- Most environmental problems have no technical solution — e.g. "one
that requires a change in only the techniques of the natural sciences,
demanding little or nothing in the way of change in human values
or ideas of morality."
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
change reside in the ocean or in the atmosphere." Science 300(5625):
Ducklow, H. (2000). In: Microbial Ecology of the Oceans.
Hardin, G. (1968). "The tragedy of the commons." Science 162
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
20 September, 2004
26 January, 2005